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To Backers and Foes of War Alike, U.N. Vote Is Validation

In the United States, at least, the Security Council's resolution on Iraq has managed to disarm something: opposition to invasion.

November 09, 2002|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush earned praise from both ends of the political spectrum Friday, but for different reasons: Some said the U.N. Security Council's approval of his Iraq resolution made war more likely, others that it made it less.

Indeed, those for and against war with Iraq saw the U.N. vote as validating their approach. Republicans and political conservatives said it laid the ground for their "zero tolerance" approach to Saddam Hussein's alleged efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Democrats and liberals said the new resolution was a victory for their insistence that the United States not go it alone but work through diplomacy and the United Nations.

The result is that whether or not the U.N. resolution ever disarms Iraq, it has -- at least temporarily -- disarmed the potential U.S. opposition.

"By going through the United Nations, we have gained critical international support if it becomes necessary to use force to disarm Saddam," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, a Democrat who voted only reluctantly for a congressional authorization of the use of force against Iraq. "This demonstrates the wisdom of working with the international community, as many of us in Congress had urged the administration to do."

Similar views were expressed on the Republican side.

"Some of us have been arguing for the last several months that this is exactly the way we should go," said Sen. Charles Hagel of Nebraska. "It gives us the moral argument if we do decide to use force."

Bush administration officials insist the U.N. resolution does not handcuff the United States. But others disagreed, saying it still imposes significant barriers to the use of force.

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who set off a firestorm of criticism by visiting Iraq this fall, said the White House view is mistaken.

"The president can always turn on the spin machine and say we're going to war, but that would not be in compliance with this resolution," McDermott said. "I think this sets the stage for the peaceful disarmament of Iraq."

Nearly the only criticism of the administration's policy -- and certainly the toughest -- came from the conservative wing of Bush's own camp, which supports unilateral action and believes that the president has allowed the United States to be handicapped.

"There is no point in kidding ourselves: The inspections process on which we are to embark is a trap," William Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote in an editorial that is scheduled to appear Nov. 18 in the conservative Weekly Standard. "It may well be one that this powerful and determined president can get out of, but it is a trap nonetheless.... The process established by the U.N. Security Council makes it harder, not easier, for the president to accomplish what he has long stated as his objective in Iraq."

The antiwar movement had been suspicious that the Bush administration would manipulate or bypass the United Nations. Despite ongoing opposition to the use of force, many in the movement expressed approval of the outcome in the Security Council.

John Cavanaugh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies and a leader of recent protests in Washington, said many had feared the United States would ramrod through the council a resolution permitting U.S. unilateral action.

"But in the last six weeks, the other nations of the world stood up to the United States and forced four rounds of concessions," Cavanaugh said. "The U.N. resolution is a big victory for the antiwar movement and for the American people, who have said they don't want a unilateral war."

The temporary detente in the public debate makes sense in historical terms, said John Mueller, who studies national security and public opinion at Ohio State University. Even during the Cold War, he said, surveys showed that the American people didn't object to going to war but that they didn't like the idea of doing so unilaterally.

"For many people, this resolution gives the legal justification for going over to the favorable side," Mueller said. He said the Bush administration was savvy to accept some constraints on its actions in return for greater public approval.

The United Nations inspections process "adds a hurdle [on going to war], but it's a hurdle that's smart," Mueller said. "If a war goes awry, the criticism won't be as harsh."

Thomas Mann, an expert on government and public opinion at the liberal Brookings Institution, said public opinion and elite opposition were critical to the Bush administration's decision to seek the United Nations' sanction for any use of force against Iraq.

"They saw there was great ambivalence about this," Mann said. "The public was willing to support the president, but they wanted validation from Congress and the United Nations."

Mann said that in the wake of the U.N. vote, he would rate the chance of a peaceful resolution of the confrontation with Iraq at about 20% -- not a probability, but "not a trivial" possibility. And that is enough, he said, to keep most war skeptics on the administration's side, at least for now.

Mann said Friday's resolution offers something to both camps: "For some it simply legitimates a preexisting desire to go to war, and for others it offers the possibilities of avoiding war."

But in the future, Mann added, such divisions may return.

"There may come a time when President Bush breaks away from a multilateral approach," he said. "And at that time, the opposition would resurface."

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