U.N. Iraq Debate: Diplomatic Divide
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GWEN IFILL: The diplomatic wrangling leading up to potential war in Iraq have split old friends and united old enemies. At the U.N. Security Council, veto-holding countries like Russia and France are still holding out against war. That’s assuming a veto even becomes necessary. The U.S. needs nine of the fifteen votes on the U.N. Security Council, but only Britain, Spain, and Bulgaria have offered firm support so far.
So furious politicking continues behind closed doors. Here to help us peer inside, are John Ruggie. He was assistant secretary-general at the U.N. from 1997 to 2001. He’s now a professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Eliot Cohen is a professor and director of the strategic studies program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He’s also a member of the Defense Policy Board, a committee that advises the secretary of defense. And Anna Vassilieva is the head of the Russian Studies Program at the Monterey Institute of International Affairs. Her Ph.D. is from the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Federation, and she was born in Siberia. Eliot Cohen, how goes the nose counting, the head counting at the U.N. Security Council right now?
ELIOT COHEN: You know, you used the phrase “furious politicking.” And I think that’s right. It seems to me the key thing to understand what’s going on is not to try to figure out the votes. I suspect nobody is really able to count those yet, but to understand that in each of these states, what we’re looking at is a game that’s occurring on many different levels. You know, this is not really just about what’s the best way of handling Iraq; in some ways that may be the last thing on people’s minds.
There are all kinds of things that are in play. There’s what inducements that are being offered by the other sides. It’s people positioning themselves for what happens after war occurs, and there’s also just a certain amount of personal attitude or background or baggage on the part of different leaders. And that, throughout this crisis, has frequently shaped the position they’ve taken. Look at the Australians who are not on the Security Council, so much of their policy seems to be shaped by John Howard, their prime minister, having been here on Sept. 11. So there are a lot of different things that are going on and very, very hard to sort out I think.
GWEN IFILL: John Ruggie, how are you keeping the players straight and how are you counting it?
JOHN RUGGIE: Well, Eliot Cohen is right that their game is being played at multiple levels but I would not agree that Iraq is not at the forefront of people’s decisions. I believe it is. Other factors, of course, come into play. The one thing that we do know as of today, there are a lot of things that are uncertain but one thing we do know is as of today, the United States does not have the nine votes. In fact, it has four votes that it began with. It’s trying very, very hard at the bilateral level back in the capitals to persuade some of the swing votes on the Security Council between now and next Monday when the U.S. Would like for the vote to take place for them to come on board.
A critical intervening factor, of course, is the report from Hans Blix and Mohamed Elbaradei, the arms inspectors this coming Friday. This swing vote, so called, the non-permanent members of the Security Council, six of them in particular, are hoping for some enlightenment and some guidance from the arms inspectors’ reports on Friday. Whether they’ll get it or not or whether the reports will be as nuanced as they have been in the past remains to be seen.
GWEN IFILL: Who are those swing votes that you’re alluding to?
JOHN RUGGIE: Well, you have Guinea which just on the 1st of March became the president of the Security Council; this rotates on a monthly basis. You have Cameroons; you have Angola; you have Chile; you have Mexico, and you have a number of other countries but those are… and of course Pakistan. Those are the six critical votes that the U.S. is counting on to help achieve the magic number nine or ten.
GWEN IFILL: Anna Vassilieva, let’s talk about Russia. As we have been tea leaf reading we were forced to try to determine what it was that Russian leaders were saying when they suggested that a veto is something which should always be held open. Is Russia poised to veto this resolution next week if it comes to the floor of the Security Council?
ANNA VASSILIEVA: Well, theoretically, as we all know, Russia certainly can exercise its right to veto, but all the analysts agree that this is not something that Russia is going to do. Naturally now in the international arena where the United States is emerging as the only super power, the right of such countries as Russia to exercise some authority through the United Nations’ channels is the right that it’s going… that the country is going to, you know, be talking about a lot and, you know, the fact that Minister Ivanov mentioned the possibility of using the veto only shows that, you know, Russia is becoming more determined to show its own voice and potential power in the international arena.
GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you –
ANNA VASSILIEVA: Although at the same time –
GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you about Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, who last week was trying to be best friends with George W. Bush. Is it possible that Vladimir Putin can really stand in opposition to the United States on something like this?
ANNA VASSILIEVA: Well, I don’t think that Vladimir Putin is going to do anything like that. Vladimir Putin is a very pragmatic leader. It is not in the economic interests of Russia, first of all, it’s not in its economic interests to oppose United States in the United Nations. Vladimir Putin is in a very difficult situation because it’s also not in the economic interest of Russia to have a war in Iraq.
So I believe that Russia is going to abstain. And I believe that Russia is going to take upon the policy of trying to exhaust all the diplomatic possibilities through the United Nations and using international law.
GWEN IFILL: Eliot Cohen, do you agree with that?
ELIOT COHEN: I think that’s right. It seems to me the most important thing to remember is pretty much everybody believes there’s going to be a war. I don’t think anybody really expects Saddam Hussein to step down or to resign. And I suspect most people would believe– I certainly believe– the United States is not going to put forward a resolution if it thinks that it’s going to lose. So people’s decisions are going to be colored by where do they want to be if there’s a war.
I agree with Dr. Vassilieva, I can’t imagine a Russian veto. I can imagine a French veto if the French believe that this is going to be a terrible mess and they want to be in a position after all this is over to say, “we told you so.” That’s a different kind of situation. But if everybody expects there to be a war, that’s going to be dominant fact in their calculus.
GWEN IFILL: Is talking about a veto almost beside the point if you can’t get the nine votes?
ELIOT COHEN: No, I mean this is a complex bargaining process. You know, if you are a potential roadblock, you’re likely to be courted. I think also within Russia it’s fair to say you again have different traditions. Putin is very much a pragmatist. There are other schools in Russia more deeply embedded perhaps in the foreign ministry or the secret services which have a long tradition of hostility to the United States and a long tradition of friendship for Iraq. And so they may be inclined to oppose the United States, but I think that assessment of Putin is absolutely right. He is a pragmatist. He wants Russia to be engaged in the global order. To do that he has got to be on good terms with the United States.
GWEN IFILL: John Ruggie, two issues which will affect this vote which actually aren’t playing out behind these closed doors, one is Saddam Hussein’s decision to destroy the al-Samoud missiles and the other of course as you mentioned earlier this Hans Blix reports on the progress of the inspections — to what degree do those two events determine the likely outcome?
JOHN RUGGIE: Well, both of them are significant developments for the non-permanent members of the Security Council and those who oppose a decision to go to war in the next week or two. The arms report is particularly important for the non-permanent members, but the al-Samoud missiles, a relatively small number have been destroyed thus far. We still have a way to go.
But at the end of the day on Friday, I doubt very much that the kind of clear guidance that some of the non-permanent members are looking for is going to be delivered by the arms inspectors and they’ll be back where they started before it all began, which is to have to make a decision of whether they will abstain or vote no in the hope of buying some time or risk the United States going outside of the Security Council and going it alone or whether they’ll come on board in the belief that it’s better to be on board and try to influence the course of post war developments in Iraq rather than to stand aside and watch it all unfold completely out of their control.
GWEN IFILL: So you agree with Eliot Cohen that whether the nine votes are wrestled together or not, whether there is a veto or not, whether the non-permanent members and the permanent members all agree or not, there is still — everyone is going to have to get on board because there’s going to be a war no matter what?
JOHN RUGGIE: Well, certainly, the sentiment at the U.N. is that there is going to be a war no matter what. And some people are asking the question, why do we want to get in the way if it’s going to happen anyway? But I would say that it would be much harder for the United States to explain not being able to get nine votes on the Security Council than it is to explain a veto. A French veto, for example, you can always explain away because of French idiosyncrasies, because of French power games or ego trips, but if the United States can’t get nine votes on the Security Council, given how hard they’re trying in the capitals to twist arms and to provide inducements, that would take some effort, I would think, for the Bush administration to explain away.
GWEN IFILL: Anna Vassilieva, so many countries involved in this process have their own goals — their own things they’re trying to get accomplished at the same time as they’re trying to figure out where to be. In Russia’s case, does Russia have its own foreign policy toward Iraq that it is trying to promulgate apart from this debate?
ANNA VASSILIEVA: Well, Russian interest in Iraq is, first of all, economic. I’m talking Russian government’s interest. If the war breaks out, if United States occupies Iraq, then, you know, some predict the prices for oil will drop to 12, 15 dollars per barrel and it will certainly hit the Russian economy very hard. About 200 firms that are concentrated on the oil and gas industry will be devastated, and in general oil and gas industry of Russia will have, you know, an enormous negative impact on it. So that’s the first concern.
You know, second concern is the issue of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which seems to be of, you know, the first importance to the western politicians, has never been of such a great importance to the Russians. So you can talk about all kinds of political implications, but my opinion is that, first of all, here Russia is driven by economic considerations.
GWEN IFILL: Eliot Cohen, if the United States decides it’s going to go ahead unilaterally or bilaterally or whatever with this action in Iraq, will it be establishing a precedent or is this something that other countries have done before and or will this be opening the door to other countries to do it again in the future?
ELIOT COHEN: Well, the first thing it won’t be unilateral. There will be a whole bunch of countries that will be participating in a variety of ways — the British, the Australians, of course. We couldn’t be doing anything there without the support of a lot of countries in the Persian Gulf who are keeping a very low profile. No, I don’t think it establishes a precedent. In fact there was a very interesting article that was written by Richard Holbrook saying that, you know, when we went into Kosovo we didn’t go to the U.N. First. When the French went into the Ivory Coast, they didn’t go to the United Nations first. It seems to me that the United States’ government has been strategically inflexible. They know what the objective is. The objective is to overthrow Saddam Hussein and eliminate the weapons of mass destruction.
Tactically I think they’re quite flexible. A lot of the reason to go the U.N. route was to try to garner as much support as possible, to help out Prime Minister Blair in particular but it wasn’t done through some sense of conviction that you had to get U.N. authorization to do this. The truth is you really don’t need an 18th Resolution on top of the 17 that you’ve already got.
GWEN IFILL: Eliot Cohen, John Ruggie and Anna Vassilieva, thank you all for joining us.