- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 17 (UPI) — White House spokesman Ari Fleischer is fond of saying that President George W. Bush was ready to "travel the extra mile" to keep the diplomatic effort alive in the Iraq crisis. On Sunday the president journeyed 4,600 miles to and from an island in the mid-Atlantic to bury diplomacy altogether.

Standing with the leaders of Britain and Spain, his closest allies (and the prime minister of Portugal as the summit host) in Terceira, one of the Azores islands, Bush delivered an ultimatum, not to Saddam Hussein but to the U.N. Security Council. The U.N., he said, had until Monday to support U.S.-led armed action if Iraq did not disarm.

"Tomorrow is the day that will determine whether diplomacy can work," Bush said. "Tomorrow is the moment of truth for the world."

But the day became a couple of hours. Iraq crisis diplomacy died at 10 a.m. Monday when Jeremy Greenstock, the British representative to the U.N., announced that the so-called "coalition of the willing" — would not be seeking a Security Council vote on the coalition's joint draft resolution authorizing the use of force against Saddam.

With the resolution withdrawn, Greenstock said, the United States and its allies "reserved the right to take their own steps" to disarm Iraq.

Greenstock blamed France's threat to exercise its council veto for the decision. Shortly afterwards, Secretary of State Colin Powell repeated this charge in his Washington press conference. Because of the French veto, Powell declared, "no purpose would be served by pushing the resolution."

France may have a lot to answer for as a spoiler of U.S. intentions, but some knowledgeable diplomats regard the strategy of pinning the withdrawal of France as disingenuous.

Just about everyone else acknowledges that the United States and its allies were making the best of a diplomatic defeat. The draft resolution never had the nine "yes" votes needed to be adopted by the 15-member council in the first place, and the French threat was more rhetorical than real.

The permanent council members' veto — the United States, Britain, Russia, China and France being the permanent members — is there to block a resolution after it has been passed by a show of hands.

The decision not to seek a vote was rooted in a complex series of reasons involving U.S. prestige, Tony Blair's jitters, and the legality of a war on Saddam Hussein.

A "no" vote for the resolution would have raised more questions about the legality of the U.S. military action against Iraq than there are already. But U.S. officials privately maintain that Bush feels there are more important issues than the legal situation. Nor is he overly concerned about securing U.N. backing for the war.

British Prime Minister Blair, however, has to be. His precarious position in his own party, combined with the groundswell of British public opposition to the war, mean that he needs every fig leaf he can get.

The other reason why the Bush administration steered clear of a vote was prudence. The ritual call for a show of hands around the horseshoe-shaped table in the Security Council would have revealed that Mexico and Pakistan were either opposed to the U.S. resolution, or had abstained — either way a deep embarrassment to Washington.

"It must make the Bush administration very bitter to have failed to win the support of its closest neighbor, President Fox (of Mexico), or (Pakistan's) President Musharraf," a senior European official observed Monday.

It doesn't matter that the bitterness is even-handed. After all, France suffered the humiliation of two former African colonies with which it has a close relationship — Cameroon and Guinea — defecting to the United States. A week ago French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin traveled to both countries in a last attempt to persuade them to support the French position.

Both countries ended up supporting Washington.

Throughout the crisis, America's allies also had to contend with mixed signals over Bush's real intentions. The president has periodically arranged his Iraq rhetoric as if he were arranging furniture in a room: First, the couch and two armchairs were moved against the wall; then the big armoire was removed to make more space; and so on.

One claim remained constant throughout: The main goal was to disarm Iraq, but the United States was anxious to avoid going to war to achieve it.

Even in that, as it turned out, the Bush administration was being imaginative with the truth. In the past couple of weeks the Bush administration's real intentions have gradually taken shape, culminating in the event of this weekend, European analysts say.

It became clear that the United States: 1) never intended anything but a war in the spring of 2003, and 2) was determined to remove Saddam one way or another.

Saddam is no more popular in Europe than he is to the Bush administration. But the war has become a focal point for a whole catalog of resentment towards Bush, ranging from the U.S. withdrawal from the global warming agreement to opposition to the International Criminal Court.

So while the Bush administration claims to have broad support for its impending war, many analysts see it as a U.S.-British attack undertaken against the will of the larger European nations, and most Arab countries, without the help of Turkey, and in the face of growing public protest.

When Colin Powell was asked Monday if he thought the U.N. had become irrelevant as a result of its handling of the Iraq crisis — as Bush and various members of the administration had hinted darkly would be the world body's fate — his answer was, "The United Nations is an important institution and it will survive. But this was a test the Security Council did not meet. This was a resolution that every person knew that serious consequences would follow."

It was also a test for the Bush administration. The winner will be decided on the battlefields of Baghdad.

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