For three months, President Bush has supported U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq on the understanding that if they didn't get results fast, military action would follow. If, in Friday's Security Council debate, opponents of immediate war had offered a later deadline or a higher threshold for resorting to force, Bush might have gone along. They didn't. Instead, most members of the council converged on three assumptions that make military action impossible. In so doing, they stripped U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell of any reason to ask Bush to wait. The U.S.-U.N. courtship is over.
1) Progress is enough. In his briefing to the council, chief inspector Hans Blix listed what Iraq had and hadn't done to cooperate. Most members focused on the bright side of Blix's report. Fourteen acknowledged the "progress" made so far. Six—China, France, Germany, Guinea, Russia, and Syria—portrayed this progress as sufficient reason to continue inspections. Three more—Angola, Cameroon, and Mexico—implicitly drew the same conclusion.
The trouble with progress is that it can go on forever without reaching an absolute standard. In Friday's debate, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov noted that Iraq had shown "movement in the right direction" on several matters that had been "pending" at the council's Feb. 5 meeting. By this logic, other Iraqi obstructions would become the new pending business, and Iraq could satisfy the council at its next meeting by showing movement on those obstructions.
2) Inspections can fix themselves. On Feb. 5, Powell presented evidence to the council that Iraq was moving things around to hide them from inspectors. In their briefings Friday, Blix and chief nuclear inspector Mohamed ElBaradei suggested that additional inspectors and surveillance equipment could help them catch the Iraqis in such evasions. On this view, if inspections are being foiled, the solution is more or better-equipped inspectors. Therefore, inspections never end.
Six council members—Cameroon, France, Germany, Mexico, Pakistan, and Syria—explicitly or implicitly embraced this theory. Two others—Angola and Russia—embraced the equally circular theory that inspections must continue because they're necessary to gather data on the basis of which the council can decide whether to continue inspections. Even Bulgaria and Chile, whose votes are essential to any war resolution, endorsed further efforts to make inspections evasion-proof.
3) War is failure. Early in the debate, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin declared, "War is always the sanction of failure." Angola's U.N. ambassador added that the council's job was "to spare our world from the scourge of war." Both nations, along with Chile, China, Germany, Mexico, Pakistan, and Russia, stressed that war shouldn't be entertained until every other option was exhausted. But if you equate war with failure or forbid it as long as alternatives are conceivable, you'll never turn to it. Iraq can foster just enough promise in some compliance "process" to keep you from picking up your gun.
Years from now, I'll remember two moments from Friday's debate. One was when de Villepin raised the question of "how much time [should be] allowed Iraq" before giving up on inspections—and proceeded not to answer it. The other was the concluding plea from German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer: "There should be no automatism leading us to the use of military force." Not to worry. The United Nations' automatism leads away from force. That's why the choice in Iraq is boiling down to war now or war never.