Published on Thursday, March 6, 2003 by the Washington Post
U.S. in a Tough Position As Isolation Increases
Setbacks Raise Stakes for Administration
by Glenn Kessler
The Bush administration this week has become increasingly isolated in the world over its determination to topple the Iraqi government, leaving it in a diplomatically difficult position in advance of a critical U.N. Security Council meeting Friday.
By contrast, Iraq has made great headway in splintering the Security Council, making it less likely it will approve a U.S.-backed resolution authorizing military action. Iraq over the weekend began complying with a demand to destroy missiles that exceeded U.N. restrictions, provided unrestricted access to seven scientists and promised to answer inspectors' questions on its weapons programs.
The sense of U.S. isolation, which has been building for some time, culminated with a series of setbacks in the past week for the U.S. position. Turkey's parliament Saturday rejected a request to accept U.S. troops, which experts said emboldened smaller countries on the Security Council to consider defying the United States. Iraq's efforts to demonstrate cooperation strengthened the resolve of France and Russia -- two veto-wielding powers on the Security Council -- to say the inspections are working and a war is not necessary. Antiwar protests on college campuses yesterday and around the world in major cities last month have left the image of a policy out of sync with public opinion.
"Between Turkey and the German-French-Russian statements that hint at a veto, it doesn't look good," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. "There are two dangers" that could result from the events of the past week, he said. "There is a mindless war conducted by us. And Saddam [Hussein] is encouraged not to give in."
The policy setbacks, Brzezinski said, have raised the ante for the administration's gamble. "At stake is not Iraq," he said. "At stake is our global role."
The administration's isolation appears to be a product of a number of factors. These include its hard-edged rhetoric, and what many say is a growing distrust of the administration's motives and its failure to make a case that Iraq poses an imminent danger.
The blunt talk often used by President Bush and other senior U.S. officials when referring to Iraq -- often effective among supporters at home -- has not translated well among foreign audiences. Bush has said more than once that he was tired of diplomatic delays, creating the impression he was eager for war and that he viewed the United Nations as a useless distraction. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld angered traditional allies in Europe, some said needlessly, by appearing to dismiss their concerns.
Although Bush initially won praise for bringing Iraq to the United Nations in September, eventually many countries began to feel that his efforts to solicit the backing of other countries were disingenuous. The administration won a number of votes for a U.N. resolution in November authorizing resumed weapons inspections in Iraq -- which passed unanimously -- by arguing that a tough resolution was the best way to avoid a war. But the Pentagon intensified its military buildup around Iraq even as the inspections got underway, signaling that the United States was prepared to go into battle regardless of what the United Nations decided.
A number of foreign diplomats said they were taken aback -- even betrayed -- by what they perceived as the administration's rush to war. They seized on any evidence of Iraqi cooperation to argue that the inspections were working and that imminent military action was not necessary. Positions were so hardened by early last month that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's extensive presentation of Iraqi misdeeds to the Security Council failed to sway many minds.
Most fundamentally, the administration has not been able to convince enough people around the world that Iraq posed enough of a threat to justify war. The message was confused as the administration first stressed "regime change" as a goal, and then switched to disarmament of the regime when it began negotiations at the United Nations.
Last week, Bush offered a new reason -- a war would so shake up the Middle East that it would spawn democracy and even help bring about peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
A failure to make the case for immediate action helped spur massive, coordinated protests around the globe, which further damaged the administration's position at home and abroad. Opinion polls of Americans frequently show that support for a war shrinks unless it is undertaken with international backing.
"None of these developments help the administration make its case," said Lee Hamilton, a former congressman who is president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "I have been surprised. I thought there was a very good chance of getting a second resolution."
Indeed, the new Security Council resolution that the administration, along with Britain and Spain, would like the chamber to approve next week is a bare-bones document that mainly restates the language of the resolution adopted unanimously by the council in November. That would seem to make its approval easy. But in a sign of how low the U.S. position has sunk, it appears increasingly unlikely the administration will be able to achieve a majority.
The administration needs nine votes, and no vetoes, to prevail in the 15-member council. Only Bulgaria has signaled it would agree to the resolution, while six nations -- including France, Russia and China with veto power -- oppose it.
The administration has frequently threatened that the United Nations would become irrelevant if the United States is forced to wage war without U.N. backing. But that argument has been turned on its head. France and other nations increasingly appear to believe a rejection of the U.S. position would rein in an administration they feel has been consumed with hubris.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company