Regardless of how the war with Iraq unfolds, the six-month American dalliance with the United Nations over the future of Saddam Hussein represents one of this country’s main post-Cold War diplomatic defeats. What makes this disaster even more aggravating is that the wounds were self-inflicted and avoidable.
Future historians will blame this fumbling exercise in statecraft on Secretary of State Colin Powell, who showed himself to be wedded to a romantic, outdated notion of great power collective security. If Powell were driven by instincts of realpolitik rather than illusions of diplomatic clubbiness, the issue of Saddam’s fate would never had been brought before the U.N. The “coalition of the willing” would have vanquished Saddam months earlier. The forces of the free world would have sustained many fewer casualties than they are suffering now.
Before embarking on the imbroglio of the Security Council, Powell’s subordinates should have briefed him on the expected cynical machinations of France. Most likely, Russia and China would have at worst abstained in the final vote in the absence of the implacable French veto.
Based on personal experience, Powell should have also known what sort of fiasco would emerge from an inspection process headed by an indecisive pedant such as Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector. In the end, Powell ruled out a follow-up vote to Resolution 1441 with the aim of protecting the world body from the historical accounting that it deserved. American political interests would have been better served had the “whip count” that President Bush originally sought from the Security Council taken place. The culprits would have been exposed before the highly vaunted “world public opinion.”
Moreover, such a vote would at least have put in perspective the humiliating photos of Bush, head of the world’s only superpower, desperately “working the phones” imploring politically irrelevant countries such as Guinea and Cameroon for permission to go to war.
How did Powell trap the president into the diplomatic abyss of the U.N.? Surely, the tough-minded realists in Bush’s inner circle were against this perilous path. And the world organization’s failure to reign in Saddam over a period of a dozen years, its failures in Rwanda and in the Balkans, its knee-jerk advocacy of the Palestinian cause to Israel’s detriment and the posturing of Secretary General Kofi Annan represented sound warnings for protecting this well-meaning but diplomatically inexperienced president from the U.N. morass.
Clues to Powell’s thinking are found in Bob Woodward’s 2002 book “Bush at War,” in which the secretary of state is quoted as regretting that during the first Gulf War “he hadn’t pressed his arguments that forcefully” for containment. Perhaps Powell really felt that what came to be ridiculed as a farcical inspection process would work. Perhaps he naively convinced himself that at this historical juncture the Security Council’s permanent members would abandon power politics in their decision making. Perhaps containment was such an article of faith with Powell that when he met privately with the president in August in the Oval Office he threatened to resign were this noble position not tried.
The whole picture of Powell’s pressures will only come to light some day with the publication of Bush’s memoirs. But we do know that in the same month Powell willfully entrapped the president into pursuing the U.N. option, Vice President Dick Cheney drew a virtual blank on his trip to the Middle East to round up diplomatic support for joint military action against Saddam. Why wasn’t Cheney’s rueful report factored into the abortive decision to go to the Security Council?
Two pillars undergirded Powell’s theory of statecraft: the strength of international coalitions and the efficacy of the political containment of hostile nations. Both approaches proved feckless in confronting Saddam in the post-September 11 culture of terrorism. Coalitions meant the diplomatic security of the good ol’ boys network of the transatlantic alliance and the supposedly rational permanent members of the Security Council engaged in harmonious conference diplomacy. Containment meant avoiding the use of military force and the reliance instead on sanctions and pressures by the “international community” in the form of inspectors, observers and peacekeepers.
In the best of times, both these diplomatically pat schemes would be doomed to failure in the absence of a recognized superpower whose role it was to enforce international order. But two dramatic changes undermined Powell’s commitment to what historians term the old diplomacy. For one, the end of the Cold War signaled the rise of states that, no longer dependent on the United States for security, are seeking new places of glory in the international arena. Secondly, the onset of terrorism eroded the traditional Band-Aid schemes by which diplomats like Powell tried to keep the peace.
What made Powell’s blindsiding of Bush even more astonishing was that the quixotic decision to invoke the higher authority of the U.N. was reached in the fall of 2002, around the same time the administration released what has come to be known as the “Bush Manifesto.”
This document, intending to confront the peril that lay “at the crossroads of radicalism and technology,” asserted the aggressive plan of preemptive self-defense against terrorists “to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country.”
While this muscular statement may have proven embarrassing to the negotiation-oriented bureaucrats in Powell’s State Department, its recommendations mirrored the thinking of the national security realists in the administration. In order to restore his damaged credibility as leader of the world’s beacon of freedom, this is the strategy that a hopefully more experienced president will follow.
Ron Rubin is a professor of political science at Borough of Manhattan Community College of the City University of New York.