After two weeks of intensive diplomacy by President George W. Bush to rally the reluctant, the score card at the United Nations remained embarrassing. Sitting in the Oval Office, frantically dialling other leaders, he appeared increasingly isolated both by traditional allies and the new hard-to-win friends. He had shown his hard power by making the Persian Gulf bristle with heavy armour but his power of persuasion was failing. Although US officials tried to put the best face on the dim prospects for winning the second resolution, calling it the "last mile" for diplomacy, the frustration was apparent. Bush, mainly as a favour to the British, was forced to once again delay the March 17 deadline, offer new compromises and fresh benchmarks to gain UN cover.
"We are calling for the vote no matter what the whip count is. Let the world know where they stand," Bush had said earlier. But with France and Russia standing ready with their veto and international public opinion raging against him, he preferred to avoid an open confrontation. The eleventh-hour efforts are likely to stretch into another week and in the end there may not be a vote at all.
The long-distance phone bill at the White House will surely be high this month since Bush has begun discovering the world. He realised that small countries matter—sometimes. Even African ones. Presidential sympathisers in the media, of whom there are many, could barely hide their contempt for Cameroon and Guinea. They asked why the US should have to make its national security decisions based on a tiny country's concurrence. But all of last week Bush was glued to the telephone, trying to win over the unwilling for his "coalition of the willing".
British foreign secretary Jack Straw offered more compromises on the "compromise resolution" with the six benchmarks in a desperate bid to get those nine votes. The benchmarks include a televised admission by President Saddam Hussein about his weapons of mass destruction and a proper accounting and surrender of VX and anthrax stockpiles. The US called them the "British proposals", maintaining a certain distance. The mixed messages did not help the already murky situation.
"They are in a very, very difficult situation. Bush promised to have a vote in the UN but he also committed to declaring war on Iraq and now they are stuck in between. It would be unprecedented for the US to go to war against the specific intention of the Security Council," says Jeremy Shapiro, a research associate at the Brookings Institution. He says the US has always sought international legitimacy for military action, however slim, but this time its diplomatic calculations had gone wrong.
But Bush might be ready to set new precedents since he has put his "cards on the table", as he declared in a rare press conference last week. The commander-in-chief seemed unflappable, even serene, through all the diplomatic wrangling and number crunching. His international lawyers have told him he has sufficient authority under previous resolutions to declare war on Iraq.
Much has been said about Bush's faith in the rightness of his cause, his determination as he ponders his preemptive war. He is an evangelical who reads the Bible and attributes his recovery from alcoholism to having found faith and God. The war against Iraq would be a "just" war because Saddam Hussein is "evil" in his words. His comments are often laced with theological imagery. Is he a pastor president? His eyes moistened at his press conference when he spoke of how Americans were praying for him. It doesn't hurt that American public opinion is gathering behind him. The month-long impasse at the UN has helped improve poll numbers. A CBS/New York Times poll done early March found that 55 per cent would approve a war without UN support, up from 44 per cent a month ago.
In the end, it may all depend on how the war goes. If it is short and Saddam is ousted, other countries will rally behind Bush as they did in Afghanistan, Shapiro says. "Bush has to pull off a convincing victory. But if there are setbacks, they'll abandon ship because the coalition support is shallow." Bush is expected to issue a disarmament ultimatum to Saddam by month-end after which military action could begin. The "coalition of the willing", which is mainly the US, Britain and Australia in terms of military presence, will get activated. "Other countries in this coalition are only giving political support. A true coalition is when their militaries join in," commented Daniel Brumburg, an analyst at Washington-based think-tank Carnegie Endowment.
The huge political difficulties on the eve of a war have caused hyper-tension among career diplomats at the State Department and two have already resigned. One well-informed source says there was "profound" disquiet in the ranks. But "isolation does not bother this administration," Brumburg said. "In fact, they are quite happy about it. For the young militants, this shows the Europeans' historic lack of resolve."