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Diplomatic Moves

February 18, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: What is the state of diplomatic play at the United Nations concerning what to do about Iraq?

To answer that, we get two views. John Ruggie was assistant secretary-general at the United Nations from 1997 to 2001, he’s now a professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Eliot Cohen is a professor and director of 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.

Well, we had the Blix and elBaradei statements Friday and the Security Council’s reaction to them and then a weekend of one could only say clarifying remarks from many of the main parties. John Ruggie, what’s the state of play today?

JOHN RUGGIE: Today it’s fluid, a little bit messy but not yet out of control. Last week was not… last week didn’t go quite the way the United States would have wished for it to go. The arms inspections report didn’t quite come out the way the administration would have wanted them to. On a couple of specifics, in fact, Sec. Powell’s presentation on Feb. 5 was challenged by the arms inspectors.

Furthermore, you have, as you saw on your set-up piece, massive demonstrations particularly in countries whose governments support the war and finally there’s still the looming question among critics of the Bush administration’s position at the United Nations, and that question is why war now? What is the imminence of the threat? We haven’t been convinced yet, they say. We haven’t yet been convinced that there is any link to al-Qaida. Why war now? Why can we not continue with inspections for some limited period of time? That’s the looming question that hangs over the debate today, but I think the resolution ultimately is still possible and both Tony Blair and Pres. Bush today indicated their preference for that course.

RAY SUAREZ: Eliot Cohen, what does the diplomatic landscape particularly at the U.N. look like to you?

ELIOT COHEN: I think in many ways we’re still in the same kind of situation that we were quite early on. That is to say, sometime in the summer it seems to me the president made a decision that he was going to either see Iraq… either see Saddam Hussein disarmed or do the disarming himself. The decision was made to go the U.N. route. I think that was Sec. Powell’s strong preference. But I think as was always the case, the administration was willing to go it alone. In fact it was… one of the ironies I think of the current situation is that the president’s willingness to go it alone is what brought about U.N. Resolution 1441 and the resumption of inspections. So I think you have that. That’s kind of major fact that there’s there.

I think there are two other big things that have happened. One is those demonstrations, which were quite massive. I think they were quite complex. There were many different motivations for people showing up on the streets, but it’s importance, perhaps more important for what it says in the long run about America’s relationship particularly with Europe than anything else.

The other thing that on the diplomatic front that though I think is quite interesting is the European story where you see deeper and deeper splits within the European Union not just between France and Germany and the so-called new Europe, the East European states, but to an extent it has in some ways been underreported a real confrontation on the part not just of Tony Blair but also the Spanish government, the Italian government, the Portuguese government, and to some extent the Danish and the Dutch, with the French and the Germans. Those remarks of Chirac, which were really quite blunt and quite rude I think are an indication of just how much tension is felt within Europe, and perhaps we should pay some attention to that. It’s not just the U.S.-European relationship that’s in play.

RAY SUAREZ: Some of the major European powers have been sending quite nuanced signals about how important it would be for them to have a second U.N. resolution, a successor to 1441 that would find Iraq not in compliance and authorize action. Why are we seeing those sudden turns and shifts in policy?

ELIOT COHEN: Well, I think everybody would like a second resolution although, you know, there’s nothing in 1441 if you look at it that says that there has to be another resolution before force is used. Still, I think everybody would like it. I think there’s difference among the Europeans in particular depending on how uncertain they are of public support. It’s clear, for example, that Tony Blair has been swimming against the tide in terms of his domestic opinion. He’s been remarkably courageous, I would say, in doing so. It would undoubtedly make his life a lot easier if there were a second resolution.

The difficulty I think in all of this is going to be that you cannot be sure that you’ll get it through partly because of just counting of the votes but partly because of the danger of a French veto. I think one of the most interesting problems that the administration has to be looking at now is this: The French may say that they will abstain if there’s another resolution. It’s entirely possible that the French will cast a veto, which I believe would be a very destructive act.

I think it is also– one hesitates to say this but I think one has to say it– the French might very well be willing to mislead the United States and lead us to think that they would abstain and then cast a veto. That would fit the pattern of behavior that included the now infamous ambush of Colin Powell at the U.N. on Martin Luther King Day where he was told he was showing up for an anti-terrorism conference and the French foreign minister sandbagged him on the subject of Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: John Ruggie, what does the question of a new resolution look like to you?

JOHN RUGGIE: I think Mr. Cohen is right that everybody would prefer to have one. In the end it may come down to what does it contain and is the struggle worth the product? I don’t believe that the French are going to veto an American resolution. The French haven’t done so if memory serves me correctly since 1956. The stakes are incredibly high here. It would undermine one of the overriding foreign policy objectives of France, in my view, which is to keep the United States engaged in the United Nations. At the end of the day if the French were to veto a U.S. Resolution that enjoyed support otherwise from other countries, my guess is that the Bush administration would walk away from the United Nations and it would be a while until any U.S. administration returned in a serious manner. At the end of the day I just don’t believe that the French want that outcome because it would, as I say, defeat one of their overriding objectives and one of the reasons they value their seat on the U.N. Security Council.

RAY SUAREZ: Eliot Cohen.

ELIOT COHEN: I agree with Mr. Ruggie’s assessment of French national interest. I believe it would be a self-destructive act. The difficulty is the French have now done a number of tremendously self-destructive things both in terms of their relations with the United States — they brought Colin Powell over into the pro war camp much more effectively than I think anything that Dick Cheney or the president could have said by that ambush in New York which really was a big deal. The current behavior in Europe is tremendously destructive to whatever position of leadership France hopes to have within the European Union. This chiding of the East Europeans literally treating them as if they were children – you’ve been badly brought up and threatening to black ball them that’s also self-destructive behavior. Although I agree with the assessment of what’s in France’s interest I’m very much afraid the French may decide to do something which, in the end, will be destructive of those interests.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, if you assume, as it sounds like — go ahead — I’m sorry, Prof. Ruggie.

JOHN RUGGIE: I was just going to say that the support that the French have gotten in the Security Council and in today’s debate at the United Nations as well isn’t coming in a vacuum. And I think he with ought to keep that in mind. The Bush administration has not yet made the persuasive case of why war has to take place now. There is growing suspicion abroad that it has much more to do with the electoral cycle in the United States than with any other consideration.

RAY SUAREZ: What do you mean by that?

JOHN RUGGIE: I mean by that that, yes, it’s going to get warm soon in Iraq but it’s going to cool down again at the end of the year. But the administration, it is believed, doesn’t want a war toward the end of the year because if it goes bad it will spill over into 2004, an election year. Now the longer these kinds of questions and charges go unanswered, the deeper the suspicions grow about what exactly the motivation of the United States is here. I don’t think we’ve done yet a good job in making the case.

ELIOT COHEN: I agree that we need to do a better job, but I will also say that there are all kinds of crazy ideas that are out there. I was at a… this conference in Munich, which was attended by a lot of secretaries of defense, ministers of defense. I had one very senior European tell me that American policy is governed by the Christian right and the Ku Klux Klan. So to some extent you’re dealing with concerns that you can’t really assuage. The difficulty I think is we’re not dealing with 1991 where you had a very clear cut active aggression. You were looking at tank armies, that sort of thing. The nature of the threat that we’re talking about, the nature of the threat of biological weapons in particular, which have no return address, is you will never have that sense of imminent danger and now we’ve got to do something about it and if we act in time, we can stop it. It just won’t be there. So that question why now ultimately means that you defer this inevitably and you just hope that nothing really bad happens until Saddam Hussein dies of natural causes.

RAY SUAREZ: Over the weekend….

JOHN RUGGIE: Well, an ideal resolution would be one that would bring the French on board in return for a pre-commitment on their part about when inspections would stop. That seemed possible about a week ago. But the events of the last few days have made it less likely and I think that’s unfortunate.

RAY SUAREZ: Wasn’t the core of a German proposal — that there be a specific timetable to test the willingness of Iraqi resolve?

ELIOT COHEN: Remember what German declared policy is, which is that they will not go to war under any circumstances.

JOHN RUGGIE: Under any circumstances.

ELIOT COHEN: Right. Chancellor Schroeder really went out on a limb. The French have been saying peculiar things. President Chirac in this interview in Time Magazine says that yes he thinks the Iraqis have nuclear — have weapons of mass destruction, yes, he says, they’re an uncontrollable state. The question is then asked, at what point should you be willing to go to war? And he says, well, that’s really up to Mr. Blix to decide, which is a very curious abdication of responsibility by political leadership. I think ultimately the French do not want there to be war, which is a reasonable position. But I also think that the idea that they’re just waiting for the right moment is incorrect.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Ruggie, we’re just about out of time. But do you expect a wrap up of this? Condi Rice said over the weekend it is time for this end in the next few weeks — one way or the other –

JOHN RUGGIE: I think it will be a matter of weeks. The resolution that the British and the Americans are working on today is not likely to be introduced before the end of this week or next week. There are more inspectors reports coming up early in March. But I think by the time the end of March comes around, there will be a moment of truth one way or the other. So I think Ms. Rice is right that this is a matter of weeks and probably not months.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you very much.