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Unlike in '90, Fear of U.S. Defines U.N. Iraq Debate

Analysis: Diplomats say respect for American resolve has given way to qualms about bullying.


UNITED NATIONS — At first glance, America's fast-unfolding confrontation with Iraq seems eerily like a replay of the crisis that led to the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

In the fall of 1990, efforts to build support for a U.N. Security Council ultimatum to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein were led by Britain and the United States. The move was accompanied by hand-wringing on the part of council members who thought the conditions were too tough, by Iraqi accusations of American imperialism and by rhetoric that the future of the United Nations was at stake.

And like last week, there was even a rare instance when the United States failed to back Israel in the Security Council as Washington worked to gather Arab support.

But appearances deceive.

The global environment in which the United States confronts Iraq today has changed dramatically. And despite America's unchallenged supremacy, the environment seems far less friendly than a decade ago.

During the intervening years, a political and psychological gap has grown between the United States and the world it so dominates--a gap created by forceful displays of American military superiority in Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan and by a kind of diplomatic decoupling from even its closest allies on major issues. Since 1990, the United States has declined to join an international criminal court and a global ban on land mines and to sign the Kyoto Protocol to reverse the deterioration of the world's environment.

The Bush administration's uncompromising rhetoric about acting unilaterally to oust Hussein has only magnified this distance. The expectant mood that permeated U.N. headquarters in late fall 1990 has been replaced by a deepening sense of foreboding as the Security Council prepares to debate a new American draft resolution on Iraq.

Respect for the United States remains, but diplomats here say the admiration that once accompanied it has been replaced by something else: fear. These diplomats say the U.S. has dropped persuasion as its main tactic and replaced it with intimidation.

In 1990, "there was great excitement that the most powerful country was gathering together the world community to meet this challenge," recalled David Malone, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations who now heads an independent New York think tank focused on U.N. activities. "That excitement and support have been replaced by apprehension and fear.

"The Security Council is operating under great pressure to accommodate the United States, but the trouble is, this administration is seen as the ugly American," Malone said. "They don't make their case. They just bully when they can."


Fear of Extinction

A senior U.N. official who declined to be identified agreed.

"It's as if the United States has put us on notice that we have a week or two to get our act together or they are going on their own," he said. "There's a lot of fear around here because if we lose the Americans, we might be able to go on for a time, but not very effectively."

Dragooning reluctant allies into a conflict with Iraq or mounting a unilateral attack could prove costly for the U.S. later on, analysts say. They say it would be harder for the administration to persuade Europeans and other allies to help with peacekeeping and rebuilding in Iraq, work that Americans have left mainly to others in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan.

"Managing postwar Iraq is not going to be just extremely difficult but also extremely expensive," Malone said.

A U.S. official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, rejected the accusations of intimidation as "unfair."

"The president made a strategic choice to go to the U.N., and we've been open in our consultations," the official said. "The president and the secretary of State have been on the phone with a number of leaders. I wouldn't call that bullying at all."

There have also been reports that the Bush administration has engaged in quiet, behind-the-scenes horse-trading, offering inducements of economic assistance, postwar business deals in Iraq and weapons to countries willing to join the fight.

But John Chipman, director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, said President Bush has a much harder case to make today than his father did 12 years ago.

"The objective was very different," Chipman said. "Then it was straightforward: Eject Iraq from Kuwait. Now it's regime change, and that's much more questionable. Whatever the grounds, it's hard for many to swallow."

To veteran diplomats here, the contrasts in America's aims, its role and its tactics are striking.

In the autumn of 1990, with the Cold War just over, the Iraq crisis seemed to bring the United Nations to the verge of rebirth, not irrelevance.

The diplomats recall a speech seven weeks before the Security Council vote on Iraq when the previous President Bush used soaring language in an address to the General Assembly.

"The U.N. is now fulfilling its promise as the world's parliament of peace," he declared.

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