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To Win U.N. Help, Play by U.N. Rules

September 22, 2002|SUZANNE NOSSEL | Suzanne Nossel was a senior advisor at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations from 1999 to 2001.

NEW YORK — Now that President Bush has enlisted the United Nations in his quest to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, his administration must maneuver skillfully to ensure the organization's support. Rather than ridicule Hussein's surprise decision to allow weapons inspectors back into his country, the U.S. should move quickly to solidify Security Council votes for swift and forceful U.N.-backed action if, as the president predicts, Iraq ultimately doesn't cooperate fully.

The administration has the wherewithal to build a solid U.N.-based coalition on Iraq, but the 190-member organization has always posed a tough diplomatic challenge for the U.S. Its members inevitably seek ways to tie down the Gulliver in their midst. The U.S., in turn, chafes at such perceived encroachments on its sovereignty and criticizes the U.N. for its inefficiency.

But this dynamic has been broken before. The U.S. marshaled the organization's wily membership to side with its Gulf War plans after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. More recently, U.N. members agreed to a cut in the dues the U.S. pays the world body. To do it again, the administration needs to follow a few simple rules, even if that means some extra patience, modesty and tolerance for other nations' agendas.

Every U.N. member knows that America's military, economic and political power makes it indispensable to the world body and that U.S. stances shape the U.N.'s priorities, image and ability to achieve its goals. At the same time, no country wants to be seen as meekly falling in line behind a U.S. diktat.

When Bush announced his intention to work through the U.N. to handle the Iraq problem, expressions of relief were heard around the world. Although foreign ministers called for a comprehensive debate in the Security Council, they privately knew that the process of crafting a new U.N. resolution on Iraq would give the rest of the world an opportunity to shift gracefully toward supporting the U.S. stance on their own terms. But the U.S. now needs to let U.N. members get there.

To sustain the positive momentum it created by approaching the U.N., the U.S. must convey the impression that it is sincerely considering the views of others. France, Russia and China, all permanent members of the Security Council, are proud and powerful countries that need to preserve their sense of independence and self-respect even as they slowly come around to letting the U.S. get its way on Iraq.

Daily admonitions by the president that the U.N. will be doomed to irrelevancy if it does not accept every last detail of an American plan on Iraq only undermine U.S. efforts to build support. Public threats and insults remind everyone of what they like least about the world's sole superpower.

Now that Hussein has offered to readmit weapons inspectors, the U.S. will be unable to persuade U.N. members to spurn his offer. If our bottom line is an attack on Iraq no later than January or February 2003 because of desert weather conditions, we should instead insist on a timeline that would meet this deadline if Baghdad interferes with the weapons inspections. Administration officials should be mindful that for many countries, the only thing worse than capitulating to the U.S. is to do it publicly. Accordingly, while formal debates in the Security Council are important, the bulk of diplomatic resources should be directed to one-on-one talks between the president and his counterparts in key capitals. For every U.S. diplomat in the conference room, 10 should be working the corridors.

Throughout, the U.S. should put forth hard evidence to support its allegations against Iraq. The U.S. rallied the world to its side during the Cuban missile crisis when it dramatically unveiled, during a Security Council session, photos of Russian missile bases in Cuba. Rather than simply dismiss Iraq's invitation to weapons inspectors as a ploy, the U.S. should be prepared to demonstrate that Baghdad's cooperation is incomplete, providing U.N. members with facts and arguments they can use to persuade skeptics back home.

In announcing that the U.S. will rejoin UNESCO--the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization--Bush showed a mature awareness that the U.S. relationship with the world body is a two-way street, and that we must respect what others expect of us and want from us. At the same time, by speaking only about Iraq in his speech to the General Assembly, the president made clear that the U.S. has only one true agenda at the U.N. today. To other countries, AIDS, hunger and economic development are do-or-die problems that matter as much as Iraq does to us. If we expand our leadership role at the U.N. to include these issues, we will significantly shore up our support on Iraq.

Finally, the U.S. must remember that the United Nations is a membership organization. As powerful as we are, we cannot dictate everything. The organization has moved faster than many thought possible in putting Iraq at the top of its agenda. Now that Iraq has accepted the return of weapons inspectors, that pace will be hard to sustain. Yet, if we are clear on what we need and willing to compromise on what we don't, other nations will come around to making what began as a unilateral U.S. initiative into a global priority.

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