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Foot in a Closing U.N. Door

Two weeks ago, Canada suggested giving Iraq a list of demands and a deadline of the end of March to comply or face United Nations-authorized military action to force it to disarm. It was a good proposal then, although the United States and Britain dismissed it out of hand. It remains a good proposal, one that might let Washington and London round up the nine votes needed for the Security Council to act on its own resolution to disarm Iraq.

Britain and the United States have begun to show some flexibility. First, they amended their original proposition and set a March 17 deadline for Iraq to demonstrate that it was complying with U.N. disarmament resolutions. Then, with Britain leading and Washington reluctantly tagging along, they indicated that date could be pushed back.

Both countries also heeded requests from uncommitted nations with Security Council seats that Iraq be given “benchmarks” to meet. These should include a clear means of verifying that disarmament has taken place.

In return for those compromises, France should say whether there are any conditions under which it would back military action against Iraq or if it would use its veto power no matter what, as French President Jacques Chirac said Monday. If France maintains that position, it should explain why it joined November’s 15-0 Security Council vote to give Iraq a “final opportunity” to meet a dozen years of U.N. disarmament demands or “face serious consequences.”

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Iraq responds only to the threat of force and then only at the last minute. It needs a deadline for compliance so it won’t be able to wait until other countries lose interest, as they have before.

Hussein has begun to slowly and begrudgingly respond only under constant political and military pressure. But with the prospect of a war unpopular around the globe, Britain pushed for delay to address opposition not just from the average Briton but from many members of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s own party and some Cabinet members.

With 300,000 troops massing near Iraq or on their way there, war certainly seems inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be. The United States risks being branded as the aggressive and arrogant superpower that disregards the wishes of the international community. Opponents of war on the Security Council risk being branded as Hussein appeasers who have turned the United Nations into a toothless body that can be ignored.

In part, it’s a measure of Hussein’s diabolical craftiness that the United States and the United Nations have turned against each other, instead of uniting against him. There’s a tremendous amount for both sides to lose, and that should create great incentive to compromise.

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If it takes more time to win Security Council agreement on a demand that Iraq disarm or be forcibly disarmed -- and given the heated disputes, it probably would take more than a few days -- then the United States should take the time. A U.S.-led invasion without U.N. sanction ought not to happen. The United Nations, then, had better come up with a viable alternative, and fast.


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