Bush Hectors U.N. Into Submission

Two brilliant speeches opened the 57th United Nations General Assembly, and each made appeals to multilateralism and international law -- but with different degrees of sincerity and success.

Kofi Annan's speech was a pithy and eloquent challenge to unilateralism by major powers, but it was President George W. Bush who gave the evening's decisive performance. His eloquent appeal asking the U.N. Security Council to hold Iraq accountable seems to have garnered the international support he needs for an attack on Baghdad.

Last week, the Bush administration suffered a sudden conversion to multilateralism after months of threatening unilateral mayhem against Iraq. When Defense Secretary Rumsfeld pulled his already delivered article justifying unilateral action from the Washington Post last week, it was the first sign that things had changed. Kofi Annan's opening speech would have been a forceful challenge to U.S. arrogance and unilateralism two weeks ago. But on Thursday, Bush made last-minute changes to his speech to deepen the reference to multilateralism after seeing Annan's speech and meeting him in the morning before the speeches. Bush's reference to working with the U.N. Security Council surprised even Condoleezza Rice, his national security advisor.

As a token of the new outlook of his administration, Bush announced that the U.S. would be rejoining UNESCO, the U.N.'s social and cultural organization which Ronald Reagan quit almost 20 years ago, right at the start of the Republican hate affair with the United Nations.

Even more surprisingly, the President did not once mention the much-vaunted "Axis of Evil" and even promoted one of its members, Iran, as the first victim of Iraqi aggression and a continuing victim of "terrorist" groups hosted by Baghdad. Perhaps not since the enemy changed from Eastasia to Eurasia in mid-oration in George Orwell's 1984 has there been such an abrupt about-face in a nation's foreign policy.

Of course, Bush did not mention the former American role in supporting Iraq against Iran in that act of aggression. But then he also conveniently forgot the United States' refusal to join the League of Nations, when he compared the authority of the U.N. Security Council with the League's powerlessness.

While Bush's conversion to multilateralism may have been superficial and expedient -- the same Bush derided the idea that the U.S. could in any way influence the U.S. Congress the very next day -- it was no less effective.

U.N. officials and other foreign policy experts say that Bush has skillfully maneuvered the world governing body into a position where it has little choice but to sharply increase pressure on Saddam Hussein to buttress its own authority. The Security Council now seems likely pass a difficult choice on to Saddam: Either quickly agree to admit a new team of weapons inspectors with unconditional access to Iraqi facilities or face an invasion.

For what it is worth, Bush did make a substantial case against Iraq for its defiance of multiple Security Council resolutions, even if he considerably exaggerated the already slender evidence of any Iraqi involvement present or potential with al-Qaeda. While the rest of world is unconvinced that any attack on Baghdad is part of the "War against Terrorism," the Council is sure to get more than enough votes to threaten Baghdad with military reprisals if it does not admit inspectors by a certain deadline. That may explain why Saddam was quick to unconditionally accept the return of U.N. weapons inspectors.

It is difficult to underestimate the effect of Bush's volte-face. Even for many skeptical nations, the Bush speech offers a double boost to international order by simultaneously stopping the world's only superpower from going it alone, and promising to curb a recidivist rogue state whose defiance was making the U.N. look silly. What's more, Iraq's prompt submission to U.N. demands after years of evasion vindicates Bush's speech and his get-tough prescriptions.

And clearly, the campaign against Saddam has already begun to broaden. Powell, almost certainly a major mover in the shift to multilateralism, met Friday afternoon with the 10 elected members of the Security Council. Earlier in the week, one of them had cheerfully confided: "We're expecting to feel the grip on our testicles any day soon."

Iraq's immediate future is once again unclear, because of Saddam's sudden about-face, which may rob Bush of his casus belli. But the weeks ahead may also offer an opportunity for friends of international law to exploit this small window of multilateralism before the fundamentalists in the administration are let out of their kennels again.

A relaxation of the campaign against the ICC -- surely the best venue to try the Iraqi president, if he is apprehended; the restoration of funding to the UNFPA; and full payment of U.S. dues to the U.N. may be more possible now. It may seem like wishful thinking, but then anything is possible on the road to Baghdad -- even multilateralism.

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