In late 2002 and early 2003, the U.S. government was preparing for war and working desperately to convince the other members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council to authorize the use of force against Iraq. According to the U.S. government, Iraq had repeatedly failed to comply with multiple UN Security Council resolutions, especially its commitments to eliminate a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) program that included biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. In September 2002, President George W. Bush addressed the UN General Assembly and argued that U.S. patience was wearing thin and that the stakes for the institution were high. "The purposes of the United States should not be doubted. The Security Council resolutions will be enforced. The just demands of peace and security will be met--or action will be unavoidable, and a regime that has lost its legitimacy will also lose its power." Bush continued by asking, "Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?" (1) Although Bush was clearly signaling his willingness to employ unilateral military force, he had both international and domestic political reasons to seek a UN mandate. Such a mandate would catalyze military and financial support from other governments for a U.S.-led military operation, and it would strengthen Bush's domestic support among U.S. voters and members of Congress.
Practically speaking, this meant that Bush needed a new UN Security Council resolution, explicitly authorizing the use of force against Iraq. To realize this goal, the United States would have to persuade the other four permanent members of the Security Council plus at least four of the ten rotating members to vote for a resolution authorizing the use of force. (2) In pursuit of this goal, the U.S. government tried repeatedly to shape the behavior and the language of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The UN Security Council had previously granted these two international bodies authority to monitor Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions, (3) to conduct inspections within Iraq, to report their findings back to the UN Security Council, and to provide opinions on whether or not Iraq continued to possess prohibited weapons. (4) The U.S. government knew that in order to get reluctant members to vote in favor of the use of force, it would need UNMOVIC or the IAEA to report that Iraq was in material breach of previous resolutions and that Iraq's WMD program posed a direct threat to international peace and security. Despite its great power (and its great efforts), the U.S. government could do very little to shape the inspectors' behavior or the official reports of these international bodies.
These facts led some analysts to conclude that UNMOVIC and the IAEA were "bad agents," either because they were incompetent, biased against the United States, or corrupt. (5) Consequently, the U.S. government paid significant "sovereignty costs" by delegating authority to agents that could not be controlled or directed ex post. Such conclusions stem from a misspecification of agency models or a misunderstanding of the source of the authority that was delegated to weapons inspectors. A clear elaboration of common agency problems, and the principal-agent (P-A) models that are typically used to analyze such delegations of authority, help us to understand this case. Moreover, the framework developed below should help analysts avoid modeling errors in analogous cases in which groups of states pursue their interests through an international delegation of authority.
This case suggests several lessons for scholars interested in analyzing the legal and political issues raised by international delegation. First, the legal mandates and the formal decision rules of international institutions are often efficacious, as they were in this case, and they have substantively important and predictable consequences for international outcomes. …