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A Long, Winding Road to a Diplomatic Dead End
From The New York Times:
Dining in September with a group of foreign ministers at the elegant Hotel Pierre in New York, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was uneasy. France was advocating that a first resolution at the United Nations Security Council, demanding that Iraq promptly disclose its weapons and disarm, must be followed by a second resolution authorizing war if Iraq refused.
"Be sure about one thing," Mr. Powell told Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister. "Don't vote for the first, unless you are prepared to vote for the second."
Mr. de Villepin assented, officials who were there said.
But in the months since, France has rejected any second resolution clearing the way for war. And Mr. de Villepin won over most of the other 13 Council members.
With some bitterness, American officials now say France never really intended to support a war with Iraq. French officials say equally bitterly that the United States never intended anything but a war in the spring of 2003.
Just about everyone involved now acknowledges that a train of miscalculations and misunderstandings has produced a setback for American diplomacy and world standing.
The United States and Britain appear likely to lead an attack, against the will of Europe's biggest states, without the military help of Turkey, despite deep anxieties among Arab countries and fought to the sound of angry protest throughout much of the world.
"We have had our share of mistakes," said a senior administration official. "But fundamentally we have fallen victim to a different reading from many of our friends about the necessity of dealing with the problem of Iraq. The more these differences arose, the more they aggravated resentment over American power in the world."
In more than a dozen interviews, top policy makers in the United States and other countries ascribed the current situation to many factors.
Some cite international anger over the Bush administration's opposition to the Kyoto global warming agreement, several arms control treaties and other mechanisms of international law.
Administration officials acknowledge that as the White House switched its signals — was the aim to disarm Iraq, or to defeat its leaders? — the mixed messages undercut the claim that the United States, too, wanted to avoid a war.
Still others say that by seizing on the first report by Hans Blix, one of the two chief United Nations weapons inspectors, as a prima facie case for war, the United States and Britain made him ever more cautious in his conclusions.
Some criticize Mr. Powell for not engaging in shuttle diplomacy to build support around the world. "He should get off the phone and get on a plane," said an administration official.
Mr. Powell's defenders blame the blunt criticism of Europe by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for undercutting his efforts to build support there.
In the last month or two, others say, American tactics backfired as diplomats tried to persuade smaller, undecided countries to accept a faster timetable. The more the pressure, the more the resentment it generated, some said.
Assertions that Iraq was linked to Al Qaeda backfired, too, European officials said, as intelligence services in Europe told their leaders that even the Central Intelligence Agency had doubts about the connection.
Even Mr. Bush's efforts to paint a grand vision of democracy in the Arab world, starting in Iraq, backfired, with Mr. de Villepin gaining support by warning that the United States had dreams of remaking the Middle East in its own image of democracy.
The Fall of 2002
Misunderstanding At United Nations
Despite misgivings among his aides, Mr. Powell got President Bush to accede to a French request last fall to pass one measure at the Security Council on Iraq in November, and to allow the Council a second opportunity to discuss what to do if President Saddam Hussein failed to comply with the first.
With Mr. Bush surrounded by skeptics — Vice President Dick Cheney, Mr. Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser — administration officials said Mr. Powell tried to convince that inner circle that at the end of the process, the French would recognize the failure of the inspections and agree to war.
"Condi was the tipping factor," said an administration official, referring to Ms. Rice. "Powell convinced her that the French would be with us. It was wrong then, and it is wrong today."
Whereas the United States saw the resolution as a way of rallying the world around its charge that Mr. Hussein was defying the inspections and the demands to disarm, France and others saw it as a way of pressing the inspections forward as long as they were bearing fruit, with or without Iraqi cooperation.
This misunderstanding, many say, was compounded by the fact that the entire process of trying to avert a war through inspections and negotiations was undercut by the military buildup that the United States said was necessary to force Iraq to comply — a buildup that some officials later argued could not be reversed without the United States losing face.
"In retrospect, the military buildup and the diplomacy were out of sync with each other," said Richard C. Holbrooke, ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration. "The policies were executed in a provocative way that alienated our friends."
By mid-September, the contradictions were apparent to both sides. It was then that Iraq acceded to receiving the inspections, with Secretary General Kofi Annan at the United Nations helping Iraq draft the statement letting them in.
French officials recall that, whereas they were elated at this development, they detected that American officials seemed to be upset. "It should have been a happy moment," said a French official. "But the Americans saw it as a setback. They showed they never wanted the inspections to work."
The negotiations to produce Resolution 1441 at the Security Council were a high-water mark for Mr. Powell, who won worldwide praise for his efforts to avert war by giving Mr. Hussein one last chance for a peaceful exit through disarmament and disclosure, if not by relinquishing power voluntarily.
Mr. Powell told associates that he truly believed that the process could work, and the administration began changing its rhetoric from "regime change" to "disarmament."
But a top official called this whole process "a willful suspension of disbelief" — there was a feeling that no one wanted to admit publicly that it was like "sprinkling pixie dust" on the problem, as one put it.
A Cold New Year
Show of Agreement Slips, Then Is Lost
According to American, French and United Nations diplomats, the pretense of agreement slipped away in December and got lost in January.
First came Iraq's declaration of its weapons on Dec. 7, falling far short of the disclosure demanded by the United Nations. The Bush administration debated whether to go to the United Nations then and there and demand a new declaration that Iraq was in "material breach" of its obligations.
But a senior administration official said it was decided that such a move would be seen as too provocative and too much evidence of American desire for war. Some in the administration now say the decision not to confront the United Nations at that time was a mistake, because it would have started the debate on using force much earlier.
If there was a turning point in this period, the French say, it occurred when Mr. Blix, the co-chief United Nations weapons inspector, began circulating a timetable for how he would proceed with his job in mid-January.
Because Resolution 1441 did not have a timetable, Mr. Blix and his team reverted to one from the 1990's calling for a step-by-step introduction of inspectors, setting up their infrastructure and then establishing "tasks" for Iraq to carry out. The "tasks" are due to be listed on March 27.
Once the United States got a look at the plan, there were objections. Ms. Rice and others, including John D. Negroponte, the American ambassador to the United Nations, issued statements saying the United States could not wait until that date.
"That was the moment of truth, when we suddenly realized we were going to war," said a French official.
But American diplomats regard the French view as disingenuous, a reflection of French unwillingness to see that the inspections could not be strung along forever.
The French-American alienation reached the breaking point on Jan. 20, when Mr. Powell attended a Security Council session presided over by Mr. de Villepin, ostensibly to discuss terrorism. Afterward, the French foreign minister held a news conference and declared forcefully, "Nothing! Nothing!" justified war. American officials did not hear about the news conference until the next day.
"We looked at each other and said, `What the hell is going on here?' " said an aide to Mr. Powell. "I think it all started to come apart after that moment."
Inconclusive Process For the U.S. and Blix
If there is one point on which American and other officials agree, it is that the administration failed to appreciate the dynamics of the inspections process.
Several diplomats at the United Nations said American leaders were confident that Mr. Blix would either be rebuffed by the Iraqis or he would find evidence of weapons of mass destruction that would make it obvious that the only solution was war.
The Americans were not expecting an inconclusive inspections process that would be seized upon by others as evidence that, while Iraq was far from cooperative, the process itself was working.
Some in the administration say that before Mr. Blix went in, Mr. Bush or Mr. Powell should have made a major speech framing the issue the way that the United States saw it — that small, niggling steps by Iraq were not evidence that inspections were workable.
But again, they said, there was a desire not to be seen as too eager for war even though the eagerness was barely disguised anyway.
To coax the process along, Mr. Powell made his presentation to the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5. For about an hour and a half, he presented photographs, intercepts and assertions from informants about Iraq's weapons programs, and he generally won praise for his presentation.
An initial report by Mr. Blix that Iraq was not complying adequately was seized on by the United States with such enthusiasm that, according to one person close to him, Mr. Blix shrank back in subsequent reports and was exceedingly careful not to give the United States further ammunition.
Consequently, there were bitter feelings among American officials, underscored as Mr. Blix repeatedly seemed to side with France and others that he would be able to find more evidence of weapons if only he had more time.
Mr. Blix's mantra was that he was making progress in finding weapons, that inspectors had after all destroyed more weapons in the 1990's than had been destroyed during the Persian Gulf war in 1991, that Mr. Hussein was now less dangerous than he had been before because he was trapped "in a box with the inspectors inside the box."
Administration officials say they continue to respect Mr. Blix's standing, and many say they should have figured out how to outmaneuver him early on. But by the time they realized he was not going to help the United States cause, it was too late.
Outflanking the French
Seeing Easy Support, Facing Hard Sells
Once the Bush administration realized it had lost France, its diplomatic strategy centered on trying to enlist Russia to support, or at least not veto, a resolution that would declare Iraq as failing to comply with the United Nations demands. The five veto-bearing Security Council members are Russia, China, Britain, France and the United States.
The American thinking was that if Russia acquiesced, China would as well, and there would then be a good chance of getting at least five additional votes from six undecided countries: Pakistan, Chile, Mexico, Cameroon, Guinea and Angola.
But Russia was a hard sell because of its own longstanding relationship with Iraq and Mr. Hussein. President Vladimir V. Putin was still smarting from having to accept Bush administration policies from NATO expansion to scrapping the treaty barring antiballistic missiles.
But the more the United States tried to dangle incentives, like help in paying off $8 billion in debts owed by Iraq to Russia, the more such efforts seem to backfire.
"The argument we made was that if you want your $8 billion, aren't you more likely to get it from a regime that's integrated into the world economy, and that you have helped put in power?" said a senior official. "We were not pushing a quid pro quo. It was just a matter of political logic." Nonetheless, the Russians ended up joining with France and Germany to oppose a speeded-up timetable for authorizing a war against Iraq.
Among the six undecided countries on the Security Council, Americans and Pakistanis agree that President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan would have gone along with the United States if he had been the ninth and final vote and was needed. That meant lining up two of the three African countries.
Last weekend, Mr. de Villepin went to all three of the African countries, but his efforts seemed to backfire. Then it was the Americans' turn to feel that their efforts had backfired. Some of the last-minute compromise proposals — like extending the inspections process to later in March, then passing a resolution — were pushed by Britain in response to Mexico and Chile.
But officials said President Vicente Fox of Mexico was too boxed in politically after the United States gave him little of his own agenda, particularly easing curbs on Mexican immigrants in the United States.
There were hints for Chile that if it went along with Washington, it might smooth the way for its free-trade agreement pending in Congress. But Chilean leaders reacted negatively, saying the agreement benefited the United States just as much as Chile.
"I always thought the United States would have been able to get nine votes for just about anything," said a diplomat involved in the process of the last few months. "What I didn't expect was that the skeptics would become more entrenched. One African official said to me, `What can the Americans do to us? Are they going to bomb us? Invade us?' "
The Powell Conundrum
Diplomatic Efforts Made From Home
Throughout the last several months, one of the puzzles at the State Department and throughout the administration is why Mr. Powell, one of the best-known and best-liked Americans in many parts of the world, never engaged in a campaign of public appearances abroad as energetic as the telephone and broadcast interview campaign he pressed from his office, home and car.
"His travels abroad are too few and far between," said an official, noting that the only trips Mr. Powell made to Europe since the beginning of last year were to accompany the president or to attend short-lived conferences.
The secretary also never traveled to Turkey to help line up support for using its territory as a base for a northern front in the war, although State Department officials say doing so would have undercut his stance that he was trying to prevent a conflict.
Mr. Powell is known to dislike travel. "I think I have a right balance between phone diplomacy, diplomacy here in Washington, and diplomacy on the road," he said recently when questioned about his schedule.
Some specialists say that if Mr. Powell had gone to Europe to do town meetings and to answer questions, he might have generated good will of the sort that Prime Minister Tony Blair has in Britain.
"I'm a great advocate of what I call gardening," said former Secretary of State George P. Shultz. "If you plant a garden and you ignore it for six months, it's taken over by weeds. But if you keep at it, month after month, then it grows. In diplomacy, the same thing is true."
Mr. Shultz said Mr. Powell had been an "exemplar" of the kind of patient cultivating of diplomacy he advocates, adding that it was unfair to criticize him for not traveling more because he and Mr. Bush had cultivated relations with counterparts very well.