Moment of Decision

The Washington Post

THE DEBATE on Iraq at the United Nations Security Council no longer concerns whether Iraq has agreed to disarm; in fact, it hardly concerns Iraq at all. At Friday's meeting, once again, neither chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix nor any member of the council contended that Saddam Hussein has complied with the terms of Resolution 1441, which offered him a "final opportunity" to give up weapons of mass destruction. But most members chose not to discuss the "serious consequences" the council unanimously agreed to in the event of such non-compliance. Some, such as Mexico and Chile, essentially argued that Iraqi disarmament was less important than avoiding a split of the Security Council. Others, such as Russia and France, sought to change the subject from Iraq to the United States' global role. They argued for using Iraq to establish that international crises should be managed solely by the Security Council -- and not through military action that necessarily must be led by the United States.

It's painful to imagine Saddam Hussein's satisfaction in observing the council once again descend into internal quarrels rather than hold him accountable for his defiance of its resolutions. But it's not hard to understand much of the diversionary argument. Few countries outside of the Middle East feel directly threatened by Iraq, other than the United States. Many have an understandable aversion to war when their own citizens' lives don't appear to be at risk. Some, notably Russia and France, have been unsuccessfully seeking for a decade to check American influence and create a "multipolar world"; the Iraq crisis offers a fresh platform for an agenda more important to them than the menace of a Middle Eastern dictator. The Security Council's action on Iraq "implies the international community's ability to resolve current or future crises . . . a vision of the world, a concept of the role of the United Nations," said French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. "There may be some who believe that these problems can be resolved by force, thereby creating a new order. But this is not what France believes." To oppose the use of force in Iraq, in other words, is to oppose the exercise of the United States' unrivaled power in the world.

We share the concern of those on the council who spoke of the damage of an enduring rift over Iraq -- damage for which the Bush administration's clumsy and often high-handed diplomacy will be partly responsible. Yet we would argue that the only way to preserve international cohesion is for the council to face up to the tough question that it has been avoiding for weeks -- not world order or U.S. power but Saddam Hussein's defiance of an unambiguous Security Council disarmament order. In their bid for global opinion, the French and Russians now invoke principles they would never agree to if they were applied to Chechnya or Francophone Africa. As President Bush pointed out in his news conference Thursday, Iraq's continued stockpiling of banned weapons is a direct threat to the United States, and the country has a right under the U.N. Charter to defend itself against that threat.

By taking its case to the United Nations, the Bush administration tested whether the Security Council -- which only rarely in the past 50 years has been able to respond to the world's crises -- could serve as a place where such threats could be addressed. Yet after six months of intensive effort, France, Russia, Germany and others refuse to accept the consequences of the process they claim to favor. They would rather the Security Council abandon its own resolutions, or split apart, than endorse a U.S. use of force against an outlaw tyrant. If their goal is really to preserve the U.N. security system, they should join in supporting the enforcement of U.N. resolutions; if it is merely to contain the United States, they should not be allowed to succeed. The United States, for its part, must remain open to reasonable compromise. If a few more weeks of diplomacy will serve to assuage the legitimate concerns of undecided council members, the effort -- even at this late date -- would be worth making.