Will the UN support action on Iraq?

Experience of living in Tbilisi gave me an interesting perspective on the UN and Iraq

Will the UN support action on Iraq?

By Quentin Langley

Dateline 03 October 2002

Debate on whether the Security Council will authorise action on Iraq by one resolution or two misses the point. While some in the American administration wonder if UN support matters at all, there are two countries on the Security Council which regard the question of a UN mandate as critical.

China rarely takes a strong stand – and never uses its veto – on issues that do not directly affect its interests and France would rather see American plans progress under a UN mandate if possible. Neither of these countries will be an obstacle to a resolution. The Bush administration will, of course, proceed with or without UN support, so only two of the Permanent Five, the UK and Russia, regard the issue as fundamental. The whole debate on the resolution can therefore be seen as a facing off between UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Blair is desperate for a resolution for both global and domestic reasons. He has rightly persuaded Bush that, although the wide consensus for the last Gulf war is not possible, coalition forces will have much wider international support if they act through the UN. This will not be the difference between victory and defeat, but access to French logistical support and Saudi bases will make victory quicker and cheaper and will certainly save American and allied lives. But unlike Bush, Blair has a compelling domestic case for securing a UN mandate too. It is not at all clear that his party will back him without it.

Commentators at this month’s Labour Party Conference in Blackpool – at which Blair persuaded Bill Clinton to make a speech supporting his line on Iraq – agreed that 20-30% of the delegates opposed any sort of military action in the Gulf. A group of similar size supports Blair’s line of action with the UN if possible and without it if necessary. The largest faction would support action only with UN blessing.

The Conference itself does not matter. It inflicted a defeat on Blair over public service reform and will be ignored. But the same three factions exist in Parliament too, and that does matter. The “peace at any price” faction is smaller in Parliament: probably 50-60 of Labour’s more than 400 MPs. Blair’s own faction is probably the largest, but the “only with the UN” group is significant and includes at least two cabinet ministers: Clare Short, the International Development Secretary and Robin Cook, Leader of the House of Commons and a former Foreign Secretary. The survival of Blair’s government is not in doubt – unless the war is much bloodier and more protracted than anyone but Saddam Hussein expects – but losing two key members of his cabinet together with a handful of junior ministers would be embarrassing. Worse, if a significant number of Labour MPs rebelled in a Commons vote Blair might find his huge majority threatened for the first time in his premiership. A resolution supporting action would pass, as the opposition Conservatives would back it, but relying on opposition votes to face down his own rebels would be a humiliation for Blair.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is reluctant to support hurried action against Iraq. Iraq, like Serbia, was a traditional ally of Russia’s and it is humiliating for Putin to see his friends picked off by the international community. It reminds people that Russia is no longer a superpower. More significantly, however, Putin sees his support for a resolution on Iraq as a potent bargaining tool. Putin wants American acquiescence for his plans to bomb and possibly invade the tiny Republic of Georgia in the Caucasus Mountains. Georgia, where glasnost-era Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze is President, has been friendly to the US and the American and British military have both trained Georgian troops. The US has been a generous sponsor of Georgian economic reform, though progress has been disappointing.

To Putin, the Georgian question is fundamental. He wants to act firmly on the Chechen question in response to recent events in Moscow, and Chechen separatists have taken refuge in Georgia. The Georgian government either can’t or won’t act against the Chechens in Pankisi Gorge, just 15 miles north of the capital Tbilisi, and some informed commentators there believe this is because the Chechens paid vast bribes to the former state security and interior ministers.

Shevardnadze is clever and well-connected in the west. He has used this to save his tiny country – at nearly six million the population is around that of Washington State – before. But solving the Pankisi Gorge problem matters more to Putin than Iraq and Iraq matters more to Bush than Georgia, so increasing numbers of Georgians fear a deal.

Quentin Langley is the editor of Quentin.Langley.net and writes on British and American politics. He spent September 2002 living in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 03 October 2002

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