WASHINGTON- In a basement corridor of the United Nations yesterday, American and British ambassadors bitterly pronounced the death of a hard-won international consensus against Iraq, a death that may bring serious damage to longtime alliances.
At the core of the diplomatic failure to keep the U.N. Security Council united lay profound disagreements over the use of military force that were papered over by a council resolution adopted unanimously Nov. 8.
The tensions were aggravated by mutual suspicion between the United States and France, time pressure, diplomatic slights and mounting popular opposition to war around the world.
The result became obvious at midmorning yesterday, when John D. Negroponte and Jeremy Greenstock, U.N. ambassadors for the United States and Britain, announced that they would not seek a vote on a resolution authorizing military action against Iraq, leaving President Bush to go to war without this international seal of approval.
Both blamed France's veto threat for the failure to get the necessary support.
"France suspected all along that the Americans were determined to go to war no matter what. The Americans suspected that France was determined to avoid war and evade its responsibilities, no matter what," says Dana Allin, a specialist on U.S.-Europe relations at the Institute for International Strategic Studies in London. "Each has done much to justify the other's worst stereotypes."
This end of diplomacy contrasts sharply with the success of the first President Bush in building a sizable coalition of allied nations in the 1991 Persian Gulf war and the worldwide support the United States received in its war against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
It's not clear whether the collapse of U.N. consensus will have greater impact on the United States or on France and Russia, which led the opposition to the U.S. position. If the Security Council is permanently weakened, France and Russia risk losing some of the power that comes from their veto there.
Last fall, the U.N. resolution giving Saddam Hussein "a final opportunity" to disarm took seven weeks to draft, mainly because France and Russia were determined to prevent the United States from putting a hidden "trigger" in the text that it could use as a pretext for war.
Aware of the contempt for the United Nations among some of the hawks in the Bush administration, both Russia and French labored to keep the Security Council in the driver's seat when it came to deciding whether and when to go to war.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin left no doubt at the time that he shared the Americans' view of what the resolution meant in threatening Iraq with "serious consequences."
"If Saddam Hussein does not comply, if he does not satisfy his obligations, there will obviously be a use of force," he told a French radio station four days after it was adopted.
But there was no clear agreement among the United States and other countries on how Hussein would "satisfy his obligations" or how much time he should get to do it. And left unstated in the resolution was the Bush administration's goal of "regime change" in Iraq, a goal that not even Britain thought should be a reason for war.
As the Americans saw it, anything short of complete disclosure by Iraq of all its weapons programs amounted to a failure to comply. They were certain that Iraq would not meet this test as long as Hussein remained in power.
U.S. officials also had no faith that the United Nations inspection teams led by Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei would ever be able to uncover the full extent of Iraq's weapons programs. Administration hawks saw the inspectors as useful mostly in exposing Iraqi deception and, thus, providing grounds for military action.
France and others on the council, as well as Blix and ElBaradei, had a far different view of inspections. Armed with intrusive powers and backed by the threat of force, they believed, the inspectors over time would penetrate Iraqi weapons programs and, at a minimum, prevent Hussein from expanding his arsenal. The inspectors themselves made little secret of their desire to prevent a war.
The progress of inspections proved frustrating to both sides. American intelligence failed to steer the inspectors to any "smoking gun." At the same time, Iraq avoided any glaring obstruction.
While Blix remained suspicious that Iraq was hiding biological and chemical agents, ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, became increasingly confident that Iraq had not resumed its development of nuclear weapons.
Impatient with the inspectors' bland appraisals, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell seized on and highlighted only the parts that offered evidence of Iraqi noncompliance. His own dramatic presentation to the Security Council contained intelligence findings that the inspectors later challenged.
As they quarreled over the facts, both sides in the council debate had their eye on the calendar. France and Russia wanted to prolong the inspections over several months, well past the optimum time for American forces to go to war.
Adding to the time pressure on the United States were fears of U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf, who had to endure domestic opposition to the presence of American troops and wanted an end to the uncertainty.
By mid-February, if not before, the Security Council had broken down into the same two camps that derailed strong pressure on Iraq during the mid- and late 1990s: the United States and Britain gearing up for military action, flatly opposed by Russia and France.
Last week, U.S. officials became convinced that France probably would not support war under any circumstances - despite what de Villepin said last November.
In the recriminations of the past few days, speculation has revived that both France and Russia were pursuing commercial interests. Both have unsigned deals to develop Iraqi oil fields, and Iraq has $8 billion in unpaid debt to Russia.
France's ambassador to the United States, Jean-David Levitte, said recently that if France were solely interested in commerce, it would join in an invasion so as to secure a foothold in a post-Hussein Iraq.
Some experts see other forces at work. "[French President Jacques] Chirac profoundly believes it's important not to turn the U.N. Security Council into a rubber stamp for the Americans," said Philip Gordon, an expert on U.S.-French relations at the Brookings Institution.
Chirac was also bolstered by mounting anti-war protests that cast him as an international leader trying to restrain American action.
For both Russia and France, American behavior in recent months has revived anger over American "unilateralism" that marked President Bush's early relations with Europe.
"When you start discussing regime change, we feel it's the beginning of something more dangerous," Levitte told reporters. "If you start with Saddam Hussein, who's next?"
For Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, however, the overriding issue is the danger to international stability that a war might bring, some experts say.
Russia is also worried that Bush might have his sights on Iran in the future, says Toby Gati, a senior State Department intelligence official under former President Bill Clinton. In addition, "the Russians could buck the French, but can't buck France and Germany together," she said.
The Bush administration might have eased the strains with other countries in the Security Council had it asserted a stronger role in trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Secretary-General Kofi Annan and many foreign leaders list as the most urgent problem in the Middle East.
Individual actions soured the atmosphere. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder embittered Americans by campaigning for election last year on a platform opposing war.
And comments about "old Europe" by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld soured the atmosphere between the United States and even close allies, prompting Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar to complain that Europe should hear less from Rumsfeld and more from Powell.
For all the obvious reasons for a breakdown in the U.N. consensus, there is the incalculable factor of personal diplomacy - the ties built in meetings among foreign leaders.
Commentators have faulted Powell for making phone calls instead of traveling to foreign capitals to lobby for votes in the Security Council, as his predecessor James A. Baker III did before the 1991 gulf war.
Whatever the validity of such complaints, they threw Powell on the defensive yesterday. "I believe that I have used my time properly," he said, adding, "you know, the secretary of state has many responsibilities that he or she has to deal with, and one has to balance it all."