Europe's Gambit to Forestall War ; France, Germany, and Russia Are Set to Offer a 'Coercive' Iraq Inspection Plan at the UN Friday. Could It Work?

Article excerpt

European countries bent on staving off a war with Iraq are pressing a high-stakes gamble that could either throw off the US military timetable - or precipitate war by pushing the US to act without the United Nations.

Germany - backed by permanent Security Council members France and Russia - is working on a plan to muscle up weapons inspections in Iraq with soldiers and military surveillance flights.

Deploying delaying tactics on another front, Germany and France teamed up with Belgium to block proposed NATO military protection of Turkey, the closest NATO country to Iraq, in the event of war. NATO countries were set to take up the Turkey issue again Monday after failing to reach an agreement Sunday.

The "enhanced" inspections proposal, which the German government calls "victory without bullets," is expected to be introduced to the UN Security Council Friday, when UN weapons inspectors provide an update on Iraqi cooperation.

"If [these countries] push too hard, they could force the US to go ahead with a 'coalition of the willing' but outside the UN, and that badly weakens the UN and works against the interest of countries like France," says Robert Lieber, an international relations expert at Georgetown University in Washington.

The idea of "enhanced inspections," first suggested by the French following Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the Security Council last week, is already being dismissed by the Bush administration as a "diversion" and "beside the point." For the US, the problem at this point is not finetuning the inspections, but acting on Saddam Hussein's continuing defiance of international orders to disarm.

But with a majority on the 15-member UN Security Council still expressing support for continued inspections, the international buzz around the proposal could at least stall momentum that the US and Britain believed was building in favor of a new UN resolution authorizing use of force.

Professor Lieber says the US stance - that "a second UN resolution would be nice and would make fighting the war easier, but is not legally necessary" - suggests to him that the US is not likely to "waste much time" with an "uncooperative UN."

The dilemma posed by US determination on Iraq means that even as countries focus their comments on Iraq and inspections, their real concern is how to handle their relations with the US.

Russia is a case in point. The government of President Vladimir Putin wants to nurture its nascent good relations with the US, but it also has an interest in perpetuating some aspects of Cold War- era global order - including the Security Council structure that gives it (along with France, China, the United Kingdom, and the US) a permanent, veto power. At the same time, it sees its economy increasingly tied to Germany and Europe.

"Russia has clearly made its choice, and it will stand with the Franco-German option," says Valery Fyodorov, director of the independent Center for Political Trends in Moscow. "We do not want to see the United Nations downgraded, or the advent of a world order based on US hegemony."

Insisting that Russia has received no guarantees on its oil and other economic interests in a post-war Iraq, Mr. Fyodorov says, "From this point of view, the Franco-German plan looks much better for Russia. It proposes a solution for Iraq which would be supervised and enforced by the UN - including, possibly, Russian peacekeeping troops - and that is a situation in which Russian economic interests in Iraq would be respected."

Yet while the German position is consistent with the anti-war policy of Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, even some German analysts say the latest plan is primarily designed for domestic consumption and is likely to fail in the face of the US steamroller.

The initiative seems designed "for domestic rather than foreign policy reasons," says Frank Umbach, a foreign policy and security expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations. …

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