UNITED NATIONSIt stands in a glass display case outside the stately chambers of the Security Council: a squat, golden, 2-foot-high dodo bird. But the gift from Mauritius, unveiled amid diplomatic deadlock over Iraq, conjured up humorous, if unintended symbolism. Will a stalemated Security Council soon go the way of the extinct dodo, which couldn't even fly when it was alive?
Not likely, insist U.S. and other diplomats. Even as the Bush administration temporarily recoils from a Security Council unwilling to endorse war to disarm Saddam Hussein, the United States will almost certainly return to it for help in rebuilding postwar Iraq and for other challenges that call for international intervention. As exasperated as President Bush was after six months of wrangling along the East River, senior U.S. officials say, he purposefully muted his criticism of the world body this week. "In the post-Saddam Iraq, the U.N. will definitely need to have a role," Bush promised. "It's a very important institution ... . And the U.N. must mean something."
Making Security Council demands "mean something" was cited by Bush and his diplomatic sidekick, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, as one of the reasons for going to war. And U.S. officials still believe the Security Council can offer legitimacy and ways to share the burden in some other crises, such as North Korea's nuclear defiance. "We still take the Security Council seriously," says a senior administration official. "He [Bush] believes in the institution."
After 12 years of the United States' inconclusive dealings with Iraq, Bush last fall in essence offered the Security Council a deal: get tough on Iraqi disarmament, and U.S. power will be at your service to force Saddam's compliance. But fail, he warned, and the U.N. could retreat into irrelevance like last century's League of Nations, a futile exercise in confronting dictatorships in Germany, Japan, and Italy.
It was an offer most U.N. diplomats warmed topressuring Saddam into permitting invasive weapons inspections while restraining an administration that seemed bent on attacking Iraq. But the deal, accepted unanimously in November, quickly unraveled over whether inspections were working. Last week, Bush stepped off the diplomatic track, issuing a 24-hour ultimatum to the U.N. to act. But as U.S. and British diplomats privately canvassed Security Council sentiment, the scale of the diplomatic flop became clear. None of the undecided Council members appeared to have been swayed, leaving only the U.S., Britain, Spain, and Bulgaria as unabashed supporters of taking up arms, according a senior Council diplomat. "The U.S. was pushing us into a corner, but we wouldn't support the U.S. determination to go to war," said the diplomat.
The result was a significant blow to U.S. diplomatic prestigeand to Powell, who had won over both the president and administration hawks for taking the Iraq issue to the U.N. Pique with France was palpable, with one senior State Department official saying that even if Washington kept negotiating, Paris would "weasel out" of enforcing any new resolution. But amid ceaseless talk of "regime change" and the huge military buildup in the Persian Gulf, Powell had to labor against deep suspicions across the U.N. Washington, it was said, was trying to rewrite the rules of international conductand get international approval for its new-style "preventive" war on Saddam. "The smaller the country, the more it will rely on international law and the prerogatives of the Security Council," said one U.N. diplomat. "Nobody wants a war apart from the hawks in Washington."
France, say diplomats, blocked a new resolution both out of fear that war will ignite anti-Western terror and as an opportunity to challenge U.S. power in the one forum where it can. As public opposition to war mountedfueled by Bush's tough-talking style and the image of American unilateralismeven pro-U.S. governments hesitated to side openly with Bush. "The last resolution was really to help Tony Blair," said an Asian ambassador at the U.N. "The six undecided leaders were saying, 'Why should I jeopardize my political future to save Blair?' "
The diplomatic wreckage validates Vice President Richard Cheney's warning last summer that the U.N. route would be a dead end, say some hawks. Their hope is that Bush will bypass the Security Council from now on. But past standoffs, such as the Suez crisis in 1956, led to similar predictions of doom for the U.N. "There's a certain ahistoricism about the U.N. in which each crisis is treated as though it's the first," says Shashi Tharoor, a deputy to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.
The Security Council has endorsed war only twice: Korea in 1950, when a Soviet boycott spared the Council a veto, and the Gulf War of 1991. The latter success came courtesy of the end of the Cold War, raising hopes for a newly assertive council. Later in the decade, however, council members shrank from stopping genocide in Rwanda and Serbian attacks in Kosovo, the latter failure prompting NATO to act in its place. Most often, the great powers simply haven't asked for Security Council permission to act when vital interests are at stake. "It's never, never been normal operating procedure for the U.S. to say, 'Mother, may I?' to the Security Council," says Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
At the U.N., dark humor has set in. In a recent staff meeting, one diplomat joked that "at least on the Titanic they didn't know it was an iceberg." But from his 38th-floor office, Annan has been working on damage control even before last week. He has been privately imploring diplomats to avoid doing or saying anything that causes irreparable harm. "There's a major task of trying to cool the atmosphere and make sure that people get on with working together," says Edward Mortimer, an aide to Annan. And Annan last week was prodding Council diplomats to move on to new business that could ease the divisions: U.N. distribution of humanitarian supplies to Iraq and support for an interim authority once Saddam is ousted.
Even Bush's diplomatic foes are considering how to repair the breakdown at the Security Council. French leaders have told Powell that after the war they would like to hold a "kiss and make up" summit with President Bush, two diplomatic sources tell U.S. News. And French officials have hinted that Paris is likely join in Iraq's reconstruction. "The train has left the station," says a U.N. envoy. At least the war over the war is finished.