The case for collective action

27 September 2002

On 7 June 1981, Israeli-flown, US-built F-15 and F-16 warplanes attacked Iraq's nuclear research centre at Tuwaitha, near Baghdad. The larger of two French-built reactors was destroyed and French technicians - who were responsible for training Iraqi staff - were evacuated. The Israeli government claimed that the raid was a legitimate act of self-defence, a pre-emptive strike intended to prevent Iraq from developing a nuclear weapons capability: Iraq insisted its nuclear programme was focused exclusively on peaceful projects. Washington rapped Tel Aviv's knuckles and temporarily suspended the delivery of US military aircraft to Israel on the grounds that US weapons should only be used for defence.

Two decades later, the cast has been altered - the US has clearly learned new lines and Israel is fighting a different war - but the drama is familiar. Perhaps the most significant difference is that the chances of the US taking unilateral military action - as Israel did - are in abeyance, and declining with them are the dangers of regional crisis.

The latest act opened at 8am on 24 September, when UK Prime Minister Tony Blair released a long-awaited dossier outlining his government's assessment of the threat posed by Iraq. The contents of the 50-page document, entitled 'Iraq's weapons of mass destruction', are themselves an important weapon in Blair's struggle to persuade parliament that decisive action against the perceived threat from Iraq is imperative. As a result, the dossier is also a crucial weapon in the Bush administration's attempt to build an international coalition against the regime of Saddam Hussein.

In the document's introduction, Blair lays out the case that parliament has been recalled to debate. 'I have been increasingly alarmed by the evidence from inside Iraq that despite sanctions, despite the damage done to his capability in the past, despite the UN Security Council Resolutions expressly outlawing it, and despite his denials, Saddam Hussein is continuing to develop WMD [weapons of mass destruction], and with them the ability to inflict real damage upon the region, and the stability of the world,' writes Blair.

For all its intensity, the debate in London is no more than a significant sideshow to the two essential debates already under way. In mid September, President Bush committed himself to the path of pluralism, both domestically and internationally. The response of the UN Security Council to his 12 September address to the General Assembly will be one of the key determinants of how the Iraqi drama unfolds. The other is the outcome of the congressional vote on Bush's 19 September request that he be 'authorised to use all means that he determines to be appropriate, including force, in order to enforce the UN Security Council Resolutions [as listed in the 16 clause document]. defend the national security interests of the United States against the threat posed by Iraq, and restore international peace and security in the region'. Bush laid out his reasoning less formally on 23 September, when he described Saddam Hussein as a 'man who would use weapons of mass destruction at the drop of a hat, a man who would be willing to team up with terrorist organisations with weapons of mass destruction to threaten America and our allies'.

Now the president is walking the path of inclusion at home and abroad, the process has become all important. Few doubt that Congress will grant the unlimited authority requested by Bush, but his policy will be roughly handled on the way. Former president Jimmy Carter has admitted to being 'deeply concerned' by Bush's new pre-emptive foreign policy doctrine, describing it as 'a radical departure' from the post-war consensus and saying it poses 'a great danger to [the] country'. Former vice-president Al Gore said on 23 September that 'by shifting from his early focus after 11 September on war against terrorism to war against Iraq, the president has manifestly disposed of the sympathy, goodwill and solidarity compiled by America and transformed it into a sense of deep misgiving and even hostility'.

With mid-term elections only weeks away, political point-scoring will be at the back of many minds but Bush appears to be on solid ground. 'Congress is tending towards the 'yes' vote: Bush assumes he'll get it. If he doesn't he's faced with vicious constitutional problems,' says Greg Gause, professor of political science at the University of Vermont. 'The timing remains open, but the strong likelihood is that Congress will vote on the issue before it adjourns in mid October for the elections. The administration is still hoping that it will get what it wants from the [UN] Security Council soon, as this will really ease the domestic process.'

And here lies the importance of the shift towards multilateralism, and the usefulness of Blair's dossier. The broader the array of international support for Bush's aggressive stance, the greater legitimacy it will have and the stronger his position will be in the domestic debate. 'The president really wants a Security Council resolution that has effective measures,' said Condoleezza Rice, US national security adviser, in a 22 September interview with the London daily Financial Times. 'He would not have gone down this road if he did not want this road to succeed.'

The Bush administration sees a favourable Security Council resolution as having the potential to resolve two of its other main problems: how the desired 'regime change' in Baghdad can be achieved without destabilising the region; and how the end-game of military action in Iraq might be played out.

On the first question, Saudi Arabian Foreign Affairs Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal's statement that Riyadh would fulfil its obligations to support UN policy has paved the way for greater regional co-operation - co-operation that would be sorely lacking if the US were to take unilateral action. And this is crucial if any conflict is to be prevented from overspilling.

The second question - how Iraq might be stabilised, rebuilt and rehabilitated - is arguably even more important for Bush and his advisers. 'Although it is not filtering through to the public, this subject is being hotly debated in the executive branch, much more so than it was in 1991,' says Gause. 'They want to present a concrete plan to the public, but they will hold back for as long as possible as aspects of the plan will probably alienate potential allies in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. Being able to operate under a UN umbrella will dramatically ease the process and insulate the administration from accusations of imperialism.' Operating behind a UN resolution will also allow the administration to share the potentially heavy cost of action in Iraq at a time when the domestic economy is far from healthy.

But, for now, the horsetrading in the Security Council continues, with France and Russia using the US' need for multilateralism as a playground for their own unilateral objectives. Fraught as the situation might be, and muddied as it is by Saddam Hussein's shifting stance on weapons inspectors, the US switch to multilateralism has served to reduce considerably the danger of chronically destructive regional instability.

If the UN rises to the challenge tabled by the US it is increasingly likely that the current crisis will be resolved without major regional disruption and without significant damage to regional economies. If the Security Council fails to deliver the resolution Bush seeks he will be confronted by a difficult choice. Having closed the door to unilateral action, he will have to be prepared to pay a heavy domestic political price to reopen it, and probably an even greater price abroad.

And it is in this context that Blair's document of evidence against Iraq should be seen. It might not be compelling - there is little new information and nothing to suggest a fresh, immediate threat - but it is an important part of the process that is taking the issue back to the UN Security Council. Blair has already committed the UK to stand shoulder to shoulder with the US, but if others can be persuaded to join the alliance the dossier will have served an important purpose.

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