Opponents of an assault on Iraq assume that the US will not try to get endorsement from the UN security council. In fact, not only is the US likely to ask for security council support, but it will probably get it. To avoid being wrong-footed by such a move, opponents of the war need a much more comprehensive policy for containing American fundamentalism. Just saying “Stop the war” is not enough.
The Bush team has a long history of managing international opinion and getting its own way. Key officials including Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice were in office when the Soviet Union collapsed, Germany was unified and the Gulf war was won. Nowadays they see their duty as being to eliminate the axis of evil.
Even under President Clinton’s weak leadership in foreign policy, the US was able to bring its allies into line over bombing in Bosnia and Kosovo, and neither China nor Russia used their veto powers. This is how the US “playbook” for managing international opinion runs. At first, US policy appears lonely and extreme. The debate is constructed around the idea that the US does not want to be restricted by the UN, which is indeed true. When the US magnanimously decides that it will accept some form of UN blessing, there is a carefully orchestrated sigh of relief that America is returning to the multilateral fold.
Britain will be first in line to agree. Russia, which has no interest in a direct confrontation with the US and needs its economic support, including membership of the World Trade Organisation, will quickly follow. Without Russian opposition, France will not want to use its veto. China has a consistent policy of abstention.
It is never quite this simple and events can upset the best laid plans, but on issue after issue the US has managed to strike deals and intimidate other states into supporting UN resolutions. Some of the non-permanent members of the security council will be keen to help the US. Bulgaria wants Nato membership; Colombia is reliant on Washington in its civil war; Norway has a conservative government and is anxious not to upset its guarantor against neighbouring Russia; Mexico and Ireland have strong economic dependence on the US.
This leaves Syria, Cameroon, Guinea and Singapore. The US will therefore be able to find a majority of positive votes with a few abstentions. Indeed, of the total of 15 security council members (five permanent and 10 temporary) the US may even now be able to count on eight votes just by dragging the weak temporary members into line.
Further pretexts for action may be found. UN inspectors may go in, may have full access and may let everyone off the hook. However, it is likely that some real or exaggerated facts will be brought out, or enough of a provocation made to Iraq that it expels the inspectors.
Many commentators and politicians will be so grateful for some kind of UN resolution that they will pay little attention to what is in it. Some voices will point out that it will doubtless fall far short of the traditional UN language authorising war. In this circumstance many people who oppose the attack on Iraq and are generally opposed to the havoc the Bush administration is wreaking with the international system will be left high and dry. MPs who have signed Alice Mahon’s carefully moderate early day motion calling for UN support as a prerequisite to any attack will have found that they have trapped themselves into support for a UN-sponsored war.
I hope I am wrong. But at a minimum Labour supporters accustomed to the most arcane politics of resolutions and procedures should begin, as no doubt the Russians and Chinese are already, to calculate what price Washington must pay for its war.
A good start will be to insist that the UN resolution at the time of the 1991 Gulf War ceasefire is adhered to in full. The ceasefire resolution stated the importance of “all available means” being used to achieve a wide-ranging list of objectives including a nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East, control of armaments in the region, a stronger biological weapons convention, universal adherence to the chemical weapons convention and the obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
In short, the ceasefire resolution of 1991 placed further action against Iraq in the context of a global system for the management and elimination of armaments. That objective has been discarded. It should remain the basis of a modern international security strategy. There are many in the US who oppose the fundamentalist policies of the present White House team. We need to forge stronger links with them to begin to craft a strategy of containment.
Dan Plesch is the senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies.