When historians get around

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March 18, 2003 1:11 a.m.

When historians get around to trying to explain the last six months (i.e., how we got from resolution 1441 to the breakdown of the UN process and war) I don’t think they will chalk much of this up to anyone ‘losing their will.’ I think the truth is more prosaic and straightforward. Yes, everyone voted in favor of 1441. But there were two groups amongst those fourteen member nations. And they had very different conceptions of what they were voting for.

Actually, I think this is a generous interpretation. But let’s set that aside for the moment.

France, Russia and most of the rest of the countries on the Security Council thought they were signing on to a juiced-up version of inspections, basically like what we had until the old system broke down in 1998. That would mean a relatively open-ended process in which inspectors went into Iraq and searched around at will. If they found stuff it would be destroyed. If they obstructed the inspections, then the UN might sanction forcing the issue by authorizing an attack.

You might say that this is a lily-livered approach, or bad policy. But I think it’s clearly what they thought were signing on to.

We, and perhaps also the Brits (but I have my doubts), had a very different idea. Our idea is (and possibly was then too) that Saddam had to make the positive decision to come forward and hand over what we accused him of having or that was it.

Part of the problem is that the plain text of 1441, I think, can be read as supporting either one of these interpretations. As judges often will, though, one thing you do when the plain text isn’t itself dispositive is to look back at what amounts to the legislative record: that is, what the diplomats at the Security Council said at the time.

On this point I think one thing is extremely clear. The key point of the contention was this matter of ‘automaticity.’ The Council was willing to sign on to demanding compliance but only if it was in charge of deciding what constituted compliance and non-compliance.

Basically, they were only willing to do it if they got another bite at the apple and got an opportunity to interpret their own words. It wasn’t going to be up to DC regime-change scribes to decide what was a ‘material breach’. It was going to be up to France, Russia et.al.

Maybe that’s lame. But that’s what they signed on to. If they ‘lacked will,’ they made it pretty clear up front.

Now, there was a degree of willful mystification that happened here. The different parties agreed not to look too closely at each others’ interpretation of what they were signing. But the wording which the other countries demanded and received was wording which they believed put them in charge of deciding when or if there would be war. At the time, Ireland’s Ambassdor to the UN said the word changes kept “the hands of the council members as a whole on the steering wheel of the resolution in the future. It’s of enormous significance.”

The problem for the United States is that we pretty clearly went on the record validating this other interpretation. Here’s what America’s UN Representative John Negroponte said at the UN on the day the resolution passed …

There’s no ‘automaticity’ and this is a two-stage process, and in that regard we have met the principal concerns that have been expressed for the resolution. Whatever violation there is, or is judged to exist, will be dealt with in the council, and the council will have an opportunity to consider the matter before any other action is taken.

What he was saying there was that 1441 was not self-enforcing. Its language and what counted as an infraction was to be decided by the Security Council. This was the price we paid for getting for getting the unanimous vote.

What this means pretty clearly is that we cannot claim that Resolution 1441 gives us any basis for doing what we’re about to do. The White House has sort of had it both ways on this — on the one hand saying we’re bagging the UN process and on the other saying 1441 gives us sanction. Clearly, it doesn’t give us sanction since at the very least the expressed understanding of 1441 at the time was that only the Security Council could judge when 1441 had been be violated.

The US can decide the Council wasn’t serious and forget about the Council. That’s entirely legitimate — though, I think, bad policy. But it shouldn’t pretend that it has any shelter under 1441 since the plain facts of the matter show that it doesn’t.

Here, though, we get to the bigger point. Setting aside enforcement, what was being signed on to? As I say, I think the others countries thought they were signing on to old-fashioned inspections, or some jazzed-up version of them.

Did we have a different understanding?

This point is more speculative. But I don’t think we did. I don’t think the administration really had a particular understanding at all. I think what happened is that they got muscled into going to the UN (largely by domestic political pressure — little-noticed polls showed the president’s foreign policy numbers dipping hard late last summer). Then once they got to the UN they could only get their resolution by agreeing to what was outlined in 1441. But pretty much immediately they decided that they’d paid far too high a price to get their resolution and tried to wriggle out of it.

The rest of the Council didn’t like being wriggled. And that’s how we got where we are. They felt like they’d been played. And, to a real degree, they had.

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