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A War of Words Led to Unanimous Iraq Vote

The long-sought U.N. resolution shows the extent of U.S. power -- and its limits.

November 10, 2002|Tyler Marshall, Maggie Farley and Doyle McManus | Times Staff Writers

UNITED NATIONS — America's victory at the United Nations that tightened the noose around Iraqi President Saddam Hussein capped a diplomatic campaign the Bush administration almost didn't fight.

In the heat of this past summer, Vice President Dick Cheney and some others close to the president argued for war to overthrow Hussein and eliminate the threat of his suspected weapons of mass destruction. Seeking the return of weapons inspectors or U.N. approval of military action was a waste of precious time, they insisted.

But Secretary of State Colin L. Powell counseled that the best road to Baghdad actually went through U.N. headquarters in New York.

And so on a Friday in mid-August, after weeks of increasingly sharp rhetoric from the administration, the White House videoconferencing system brought the Bush foreign policy team together to resolve the issue: Bush and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice at the president's Texas ranch, and Powell, Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld sitting at a conference table in the White House Situation Room.

Their discussion that day launched the United States on nearly three months of tortuous negotiations that led to Friday's unanimous vote in the U.N. Security Council.

Along the way, there were behind-the-scenes efforts to defuse the crisis: an improbable mission to Baghdad by an Arab diplomat who suggested exile to Hussein, a failed bid to get Hussein on the phone with former South African President Nelson Mandela.

There were key moments behind closed doors when the diplomatic momentum shifted, such as the Mexican U.N. ambassador's insistent questioning that tipped a doubting Security Council toward accepting what the United States wanted: a new resolution on Iraq.

There was British Prime Minister Tony Blair's patient insistence on caution.

And there were the very public pronouncements of Bush, Cheney and Hussein that alternately reassured and frightened the world.

The resolution that finally passed was a diplomatic compromise, a textbook demonstration of the extent of U.S. power -- and an expression of its limits.

The United States won international legitimacy for its confrontation with Baghdad, the likely backing of key allies if war comes, and their help rebuilding a post-Hussein Iraq. Other nations also got what they wanted most: confirmation of the Security Council as the premier global authority to deal with international crises, and a process that gave peace a final chance.

More than any other time in memory, the United States used its global dominance to intimidate rather than persuade. Threats of unilateral military action, coupled with the knowledge that the U.S. had the means to carry them out, moved reluctant powers to stand against Hussein in a way few thought possible only weeks earlier.

Although the United States, too, was forced to soften its stance, and engage in dogged, patient negotiation, the result was a triumph of a new kind of American assertiveness based as much on political, economic and military dominance as it was on shared values or the quality of its arguments.

Intrigue in Washington

The fear instilled by America's bellicose statements during the summer was no accident. For months, Bush and his aides had drummed at a single insistent theme: The United States was determined to overthrow the Iraqi leader.

As early as January, Bush made Iraq a central target of his State of the Union address, when he identified it as part of an "Axis of Evil" along with Iran and North Korea. Despite the shock of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the administration was replacing Osama bin Laden with Hussein as America's public enemy No. 1.

Most alarming to foreign leaders, Bush repeated the message in private. He wanted them to know he was dead serious. After a visit to Bush at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, on Aug. 1, Jordan's King Abdullah II was distraught; he believed a war with Iraq would bring a virtual "Armageddon" to his neighborhood.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah was nearly as worried. He warned that the United States could not count on using Saudi air bases in a war -- an extraordinary position for a country that U.S. troops still defend against Iraq.

Bush and his aides were hearing appeals from all quarters to slow down. Republican elder statesmen such as Henry A. Kissinger and Lawrence S. Eagleburger weighed in. Blair argued that his own Labor Party would desert him if he joined an attack on Baghdad without an effort to get a U.N. resolution.

Over a four-day stay at his parents' summer house in Kennebunkport, Maine, the president had "in-depth conversations" with his father about Iraq, a person close to the former president said, and those conversations appeared to affect the president's thinking.

But inside the Bush Cabinet, two camps jousted. One, led by Cheney, argued against another round of U.N. inspections. The other, headed by Powell, underscored the benefits of a broad international coalition.

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