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Tracking Missteps on Diplomatic Trail

Observers say U.S. lost bets that inspections would fail outright and that France would cave.

March 18, 2003|Robin Wright and Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Arriving at the State Department before dawn Monday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made a dozen telephone calls to U.N. Security Council members. But he was mostly going through the motions.

Overnight contacts by his British and Spanish counterparts indicated that Powell's diplomatic drive to forge a united policy on Iraq, launched with much fanfare in September, was dead.

At 9 a.m., Powell met at the White House with President Bush and the national security team for one last conversation. Bush concurred: It was time to instruct U.N. Ambassador John D. Negroponte to pull a proposed resolution authorizing the use of force. The United States would take on Saddam Hussein without U.N. support.

"We spent a great deal of time overnight and early this morning talking to friends and colleagues around the world, and it was our judgment ... that no further purpose would be served by pushing this resolution," Powell told reporters.

But Powell had pretty much known since Mexican President Vicente Fox went in for back surgery March 12 that the six-month U.S. campaign at the United Nations had failed. The night before, Bush had called Fox to wish him well -- and press for Mexico's decisive Security Council vote. Fox hung up without giving it.

That meant Washington couldn't muster the nine votes needed not only to pass the resolution but also to convince skeptical members not to veto it.

The failure to secure Mexico's vote was the last of a series of setbacks for the Bush administration, although the U.S. initiative fell apart for a lot of other reasons as well -- some dating back long before Bush's U.N. speech in September.

Vice President Dick Cheney blamed the collapse less on a U.S. diplomatic failure than on a fault line between the United States and much of the world created by the Sept. 11 attacks.

"To some extent [we] have been through this watershed that most of the rest of the world hasn't been through yet. They didn't face the attacks of 9/11. They didn't suffer the death of 3,000 of their people in a matter of hours," he said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation."

But others -- even within the administration -- acknowledge that a series of U.S. miscalculations contributed to the failure of diplomacy, from the administration betting that inspections would either be blocked by Hussein or produce a "smoking gun," to assuming that, in the end, the French would go along with military force.

For Powell, the unraveling began after a Jan. 20 Security Council meeting on terrorism called by France to show that "there are greater problems in the world than Iraq." Powell went largely as a courtesy -- only to get blindsided, State Department officials said.

At a news conference after the session, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin launched into an impassioned plea for a peaceful solution in Iraq. U.N. weapons inspections should be stronger and longer, he said, and should last until the inspectors say they can't go on. "Nothing," he said twice, justifies war.

From that moment, it became clear that France opposed U.S. policy both philosophically and tactically, U.S. and U.N. officials said. Paris viewed inspections as the means to gradually get Baghdad to disarm. Washington looked at the inspections as a way to swiftly prove that Hussein was not complying.

The gap grew wider after the Jan. 27 report by chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix. The administration thought his conclusion that Iraq was not fully complying would be enough to get the Security Council to take more forceful steps. France instead argued that inspectors' discoveries showed that Baghdad was beginning to comply.

Powell's presentation of U.S. intelligence on Iraq to a special Security Council session Feb. 5 was the one moment when the U.S. regained the momentum. It didn't last long.

On Feb. 14, Blix challenged some of Powell's conclusions based on U.N. evidence. Intelligence has "limitation," he said. "Misinterpretations can occur."

In a pivotal moment in the debate, the French foreign minister then made an emotional plea for peace -- to rounds of applause in the normally staid Security Council chamber.

Powell, putting aside his prepared remarks, responded with an appeal for unity on the 15-member panel. Military force may be necessary, "as distasteful as it may be, as reluctant as we may be," to compel Iraq to disarm. Iraq's apparent cooperation with inspections was phony, he alleged. His remarks were met with silence.

That may have marked the moment the U.S. lost its argument, U.N. envoys now say. A change among the rotating members of the Security Council didn't help Washington: Germany and Spain took the places of Ireland and Norway, while Chile, Pakistan and Angola replaced U.S.-leaning Colombia, Singapore and Mauritius.

Germany's hard-line "no war under any circumstance" position hardened France's attitude, while Chile bolstered Mexico's reluctant stance.

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