WASHINGTON - For all the acknowledged diplomatic skills of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, what is going on at the United Nations now can only be described as an unmitigated fiasco, born of President Bush's determination to act against Iraq with or without the world body.
As Mr. Powell seeks to focus on Iraqi disarmament, his boss' insistence on getting rid of Saddam Hussein, euphemistically called "regime change," alienates numerous sovereign states.
The United States finds itself obliged to romance such giants of the world stage as Angola, Guinea and Cameroon in the dismal hope of garnering nine votes out of the 15-member Security Council for a majority on its war resolution, which France has already said it intends to trump with a veto.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw labors diligently to pull President Bush's chestnuts out of the fire and those of his boss, Prime Minister Tony Blair, with resolution amendments that would extend U.N. inspections for an absurd few more days in order to woo the same giants, along with other fence-straddlers such as Mexico and Chile.
At the same time, Mr. Straw notes that Britain's objective is restricted to disarming Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, not ousting Mr. Hussein, thus flatly breaking with Mr. Bush on his insistence on "regime change."
So does our stout neighbor to the north, with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien declaring that "regime change is not the debate at the U.N." and that the heavy U.S. and British presence on the Iraqi borders is already effectively containing the hated dictator.
Ironically, the more than 200,000 troops poised to attack Iraq are cited by Bush supporters as a reason that the war must go forward, lest the forces lose their fighting edge or wither in the growing heat, or President Bush lose face if there is no invasion.
Why has the situation come to this diplomatic mess? At the core, it is Mr. Bush's essential contempt for the United Nations as an inhibition to unilateral action. He never wanted in the first place to go to the United Nations for endorsement of a pre-emptive attack on Iraq and was only dragged there by Mr. Powell's insistence.
The president said from the start that he had no confidence in U.N. inspections and has sought to end them as soon as he could to get on with the invasion. Obliged to deal within the U.N. framework, his administration has attempted to bully and/or bribe reluctant Security Council members to go along while throwing billions at the Turks to get use of their territory from which to attack Iraq.
As a result, not only has Mr. Bush failed to achieve U.N. backing to do so, but in the process he also has fueled a rampant anti-Americanism - or at least an anti-Bushism - around the globe. The preposterous end is that some polls find that the president, and not the beast of Baghdad, is seen in other countries as the greater threat to peace.
The prospect that Mr. Bush's "coalition of the willing" will soon go to war in the face of the United Nations' desire to continue inspections is cast by the administration as proof that the world body is "irrelevant."
Maybe so. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan observed Monday that the U.N. charter "is very clear on the circumstance under which force can be used. If the United States and others were to go outside the council to take military action, it would not be in conformity with the charter."
In other words, was Mr. Annan suggesting to Mr. Bush that the president would be in "material breach" of the U.N. charter by attacking Iraq? And if so, who would do anything about it?
If all this were happening a few years ago, in the midst of the Cold War, the answer would be different. But today America is the only superpower, and if Mr. Bush uses that power without U.N. sanction, that's what will make the world body irrelevant.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
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