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[Published in the The New Republic on March  20 2003 (in the issue labeled "March 31") under the title "Verify First".]

The UN: A User's Guide

How Bush could have gotten regime change in Iraq through multilateralism

by Robert Wright

Some Bush administration hawks have derived a simple moral from America's recent diplomatic fiasco: You shouldn't use the United Nations to pursue vital strategic goals. But the facts of the case suggest different lessons: You shouldn't use the United Nations in such a blatantly dishonest way as to insult the intelligence of the world; and you shouldn't exhibit so little tactical imagination that a nation such as France finds it easy to frustrate you; and you should especially avoid these mistakes when, as in this case, you could have used the United Nations to reach all of your essential goals.

U.N. Resolution 1441, passed on November 8, 2002, demanded that Saddam Hussein surrender any weapons of mass destruction and established an "enhanced inspection regime." Once Saddam declared that he had no such weapons, the ball seemed to be in the international community's court: U.N. inspectors would try to prove he was lying, and, until they did, war would be put on hold. It was thus a surprise to many observers when the Bush administration started agitating for war even though inspectors had been allowed to go wherever they wanted but hadn't yet found anything.

The Bush administration now claims that these surprised observers misunderstood from the get-go--that in fact inspectors were never intended to actually uncover Saddam's hidden weapons. "The inspectors were never sent there to be detectives," said Condoleezza Rice. "They were sent there to verify his disarmament." But, if inspectors weren't meant to be detectives, then why did 1441 give them detective powers? Why did it explicitly authorize surprise inspections of presidential palaces? Why did it empower inspectors to take weapons scientists and their families outside of Iraq for interrogation?

The fact is that the inspectors' detective function had been built into 1441 by the United States itself. The resolution called for Saddam to make an "accurate, full, and complete declaration" of weapons of mass destruction. But the Bush administration knew it wouldn't trust Saddam's declaration to be complete even if he owned up to having some weapons of mass destruction. So it insisted on making inspectors so powerful that they could find out whether he was holding anything back. Disarmament verification and detective work, far from being the polar opposites that Rice implies, were one and the same from the beginning.

But, after weeks of inspections that found no smoking gun, the administration, bent on invading Iraq by early spring, started floating the "inspectors aren't detectives" line. It was repeated so often--by Rice, Colin Powell, Ari Fleischer, and a boatload of Republican talking heads--that it became a kind of background noise, its grating incoherence no doubt annoying more than one foreign diplomat.

Like it or not, the Bush administration, by going through the United Nations, had entered the realm of international law. And international law, like national law, demands proof of wrongdoing as a prerequisite for punishment. You never hear a district attorney begin an opening argument by saying, "We all know the defendant is guilty, so let's give him a few minutes to confess, and then, regardless of whether he does, let's get on with the punishment." And you're not supposed to hear the equivalent at the Security Council. But much of President Bush's rhetoric has sounded more or less like that.

At times Bush seemed to acknowledge that he bore the burden of proof. He sent Powell before the Security Council with what both men considered conclusive evidence. And most Americans (including me) found some of it compelling--most notably wiretaps that seemed to indicate Iraqis were shuffling around banned items as inspections neared. Still, it wasn't a slam-dunk case. The rough domestic equivalent--a murder case in which no weapon or body has been found and in which damning wiretaps could be cast into doubt by a sufficiently smooth attorney--might not yield a guilty verdict.

You can argue that the Security Council shouldn't be as hamstrung by evidentiary doubts as an American jury. And, in any case, such doubts aren't what led the now-famous French showoff Dominique de Villepin to block U.N. authorization of war; de Villepin seems allergic to "ultimatums" no matter how justified they are. Still, legally speaking, de Villepin's position was at least arguably defensible. Moreover, he was in a sense offering the United States a great opportunity. If the Bush team had responded adroitly to the tactical obstacle he posed, it could have outmaneuvered him and wound up ousting Saddam with less international grief than will result from the war that at this writing seems imminent.

After all, any war launched on the basis of Powell's evidence alone has a major p.r. problem: Trusting the evidence requires trusting the United States, and that's not a common practice throughout the Muslim world, where it is most important that a war in Iraq be seen as justified. Powell compounded this problem by a) sticking doggedly to a dubious interpretation of the famous "aluminum tubes" that Iraq had ordered (and never received); b) saying two satellite pictures showed that Iraqis removed chemical weapons from a site "on the twenty-second of December as the U.N. inspection team is arriving"--when in fact the picture showing Iraqi activity at the site was taken weeks earlier (and was ambiguous anyway, according to U.N. analysts); and c) touting a British intelligence report that turned out to have been largely plagiarized (not to be confused with documents that the Anglo-American team had earlier offered as proof of an Iraqi nuclear program, documents that turned out to have been forged).

In light of these screwups, and the preexisting mistrust of the United States, Powell's evidence simply didn't qualify as a smoking gun in the court of world (as opposed to American) opinion. The Security Council's refusal to authorize a war at that point was a useful reminder of this fact--and of the corollary that evidence unearthed by U.N. inspectors in the presence of TV cameras would be a much better premise for war.

Inspections almost certainly could have produced such a smoking gun if Bush had given them months more to work and had strengthened them. He could have massively expanded the inspection team and proposed a hard-nosed Security Council resolution defining specific acts of noncooperation as automatic triggers for war. (For example, the Iraqi government would have to deliver all weapons scientists for multi-day interrogations--and refusal by any of them to answer any germane question might even itself be defined as noncooperation.) Failure to meet specific disclosure benchmarks-- documenting the supposed destruction of anthrax by such-and-such a date--could also have been defined as automatic triggers for war. The Bush administration often claimed vaguely that Iraq was withholding the full cooperation demanded by Resolution 1441, but Bush never broke this assertion down into clear-cut tests, as some Security Council members advocated.

This new resolution, unlike 1441, would have defined the thresholds for war precisely and left no doubt that further Security Council authorization of war was unnecessary. Obviously, the French wouldn't have loved this idea. But Bush, by offering to hold off on war in exchange for this "automaticity," could have put them in an awkward position: By vetoing the resolution, France would be starting a war. And that would have been bad for de Villepin's image, not to mention Jacques Chirac's. (Note how flexible Chirac started sounding this week, on the eve of war, suddenly suggesting that a mere one-month delay might be enough to satisfy him.) Besides, putting war off would have been a big concession on Bush's part, allowing France to validly claim a major diplomatic victory.

In any event, even if France had vetoed the resolution, the administration could have embarked on war in better geopolitical shape than it finds itself in now. Bush would have been seen as earnestly trying to make inspections work, rather than constantly trying to short-circuit them.

So why didn't the administration try such a resolution? Lots of reasons, but the biggest one may have been fear of success. From the beginning, Bush wanted not just disarmament but regime change, and he worried that the former would preclude the latter; if inspectors actually found weapons, the world would insist on giving them time to find more weapons, ad infinitum. (Indeed, Bush seems to have signed onto Resolution 1441 on the assumption that Saddam wouldn't let inspectors into Iraq.)

My own view is that once inspectors found a smoking gun, the case for war would have become stronger, not weaker. You can't expect inspections to uncover every last canister of nerve gas and every vial of anthrax, so, once we had proved Saddam to be hiding something, we could have justifiably demanded that he abdicate and that Iraq accept U.N. governance for the duration of a good housecleaning. Saddam might have refused, causing a war, but then at least we'd be fighting someone who had been proved guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt.

What's more, in making inspections succeed, we would have shown that the United Nations can work as an instrument of coercive multilateralism. That would have been a crucial accomplishment, assuming that the United States doesn't plan to invade every country it suspects of making biological or nuclear weapons.

Resolution 1441, like many products of intensive negotiation, is an ambiguous document. It allowed France to plausibly claim that Iraq shouldn't be invaded because it hadn't been proved beyond doubt to possess the weapons of mass destruction that were the crux of the whole matter--even though France, like the United States, presumably believes that the weapons are there somewhere. The resolution also allowed the United States to plausibly claim that Iraq, by failing to cooperate fully and immediately, was subject to invasion--even though Iraq cooperated with inspectors in essential respects and much more fully than Bush had expected.

Still, it was the United States, more than France, that departed from what had initially been the consensus interpretation of Resolution 1441: If Saddam agreed to play the game--made his declaration and then let inspectors try to prove him a liar--punishment would await the inspectors' discovery of a smoking gun. And the reason the United States abandoned the spirit of 1441 was that its claim to be seeking mere disarmament and not war or even regime change (a claim that was "operative," as Richard Nixon's spokesman used to say, during much of the winter) was never really true.

In any event, the main question now isn't whether the United States or France was on stronger legal ground or which nation was guilty of greater perfidy. The question is whether the United Nations offers an institutional framework through which the United States can pursue valid goals--such as disarming and sometimes even deposing regimes that have weapons of mass destruction in violation of international law--more effectively than it can pursue them outside the United Nations. The answer is that, in this case, it almost certainly could have.

Even in the eyes of its champions, the United Nations isn't some transcendent power that can always be counted on to work effectively and justly. It is an organization of nations. As with any political body, its members try to use it for their self-interest, and, if enough powerful members can find a zone of overlapping self-interest, the body can work pretty well, pretty often. But, if the leader of the strongest member nation doesn't truly want the organization to work, then it probably won't.

The tragedy is that a sufficiently creative president could have made the organization serve America's interests and at the same time could have prepared the ground for repeating the exercise in the future. Instead, confronted with France's ambition of geo-poetic dominance, Bush displayed the crude single-mindedness and petty nationalism that has led the United States to its current status as least-popular polity in the known universe. John F. Kennedy used to say, "Don't get mad--get even." But, when France had the audacity to complicate America's plans, the Bush administration just got mad.

Robert Wright, a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of ``Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.''