Vexing Voting

Bizarro politics at the U.N.


Will the United States get the nine votes needed to authorize a March 17 deadline for Iraq to comply with UN demands to disarm, a resolution that would effectively clear the way for the U.S. to go to war?

The administration's weekend revelations about a prohibited Iraqi drone aircraft and some kind of jerry-built biological agent-spewing missile add weight to the assertion that Iraq's UN-monitored disarmament is a sham. The news gives Security Council fence sitters such as Mexico and Pakistan an excuse to mosey officially into the U.S. camp.

But in fact, it seems likely that the U.S. will ultimately get those nine votes regardless. It's this simple: most Security Council members aren't voting on the issue of war. Primarily, they're voting on whether to be in the good stead of the U.S. or in the good stead of E.U. heavyweights, of which at least France appears prepared to exercise its veto. That's because the Bush administration has made it abundantly clear that the U.S. will wage war whether the U.N. approves or not. So why not vote pragmatically?

The fact that Bulgaria, which is hoping to join the E.U., has already cast its lot with the U.S. suggests that France and Germany are woefully lacking in clout. The U.S., meanwhile, appears to be the master of making offers that can't be refused.

So far, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Bulgaria have explicitly endorsed the March 17 deadline; weekend press reports indicated Pakistan and Mexico were already leaning in our direction, even without the news of more verboten goods in the Iraqi arsenal; both countries have clear and specific interests in the U.S. government owing them a favor (or, in Pakistan's case, yet another favor). That means we need three more votes, which would have to come from among Guinea, Angola, Cameroon, and Chile. (Germany and China seem likely to abstain, and Syria's position was obvious from the get-go.)

Even though a veto from France or Russia would technically scuttle the resolution–which, ironically, might only advance the attack date–getting those nine votes would still be a diplomatic victory, if a meager one. It would suggest the U.S. has international support for war, protecting it from claims that it is a unilaterally-acting hyperpuissance.

On the domestic front, the passage of the resolution is apt to lead to more bizarro reversals in contemporary debates about foreign policy. Before intervening in Iraq came to the fore, Democrats predictably favored using the United Nations as an authoritative body and Republicans regularly denounced it as useless and an affront to U.S. sovereignty. Similarly, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to say that multilateralism was better than unilateralism, and that humanitarian concerns were a legitimate rationale for intervention, even as Republicans pooh-poohed such namby-pamby ideas as Jimmy Carter-era castoffs.

If the March 17 resolution passes–or at least garners a strong majority from the UN security council–those positions may be temporarily reversed. Republicans will look to the UN vote as legitimating action and as a marker of mutlilateral support. Democrats who don't support the war will be left to complain that multilateralism is not what it's cracked up to be. And most Americans, along with most other people on the planet, will be left wondering whether these reversals of longstanding partisan differences are being made for principled reasons or out of political expediency.