By MSNBC

Back in 1990, as the United Nations struggled with the question of whether to sanction a war to remove Iraqi troops from Kuwait, tiny Yemen decided to vote against the idea. Within days, the United States had informed Yemen not to expect the $70 million in aid pledged to it that year as a reward for ending a lengthy civil war. Saudi Arabia followed suit, canceling another $100 million in aid and expelling 800,000 Yemeni workers. Today, the “Yemen example” is very much on the minds of those U.N. Security Council members straddling the fence that separates Paris and Washington.

If twisting arms were an Olympic sport, the United States would be the diplomatic equivalent of the old East German women’s swimming team, winning gold medals hand over fist, if not fair and square. Strip away the moralizing from both sides of the Iraq debate, and what remains is a very unfair fight between the reigning champion and France, a nation with formidable cultural ties to some and an admiring pull on those who resent American hegemony, but no real ability - financial, military or otherwise - to help smaller Security Council states weather the blows that defiance would bring.

Current American and British thinking on the topic is a study in realpolitik. “Straw polls” conducted by German and French diplomats of the Security Council’s “rotating members” - the 10 states who do not wield a veto - yield a predictable result: When asked by those who favor a peaceful solution, they do, too.

In the end, however, the Anglo-American juggernaut rolls on.

It takes nine votes, and an absence of “vetoes’ from any of the five permanent members (China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States), to pass a resolution. Franco-German polling suggest that four nations (the U.S., Britain, Spain and Bulgaria) want to declare Iraq in “material breach” and move on; five (France, Russia, China, Germany and Syria) are opposed. The other six — Mexico, Guinea, Cameroon, Chile, Angola and Pakistan) sit rather uncomfortably on the fence.

But experts suggest that breakdown is deceptive. Neither China nor Russia, they say, are likely to cast vetoes — so highly do they value good relations with Washington.

At worst, they may abstain.

As for the other six: “The smaller countries, I think, we can buy except maybe Syria,” says Chris Joyner, a professor of international law at Georgetown University. “Most would stand to lose a lot more than they’d be willing to for the sake of Iraq, or France for that matter. The only reason that this particular issue exists is because of France.”

DEBTS AND CHITS

Among those with Yemen on their mind these days is Mamady Traore, the U.N. ambassador from the West African nation of Guinea. The Guineans threw the French out in 1958, invited the Soviets in and, by 1961, had seen enough of them, too. Since then, Guinea has become one of Africa’s many fledgling and destitute democracies, doing its best to steer clear of the civil conflicts plaguing its neighbors.

As with many such nations, “Debt” is the Republic of Guinea’s middle name. About $3.5 billion is owed to international creditors like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. That is a crushing figure for a country Guinea’s size.

In the past decade, conflicts all around it have sent streams of refugees across its borders. Today, British troops patrol a peace in Sierra Leone to the south; French forces head international efforts to stabilize Ivory Coast and Guinea-Bissau, due east and north, respectively.

Still, when it came time to ask for help training Guinea’s own army to secure its borders, Guinea turned to Washington. In 2003, Guinea is slated to receive about $50 million in American aid — plus an undetermined amount of military assistance. For a country where the per capita income is about $330 a year, that translates to an extra week’s salary for every man, woman and child in Guinea.

Traore is keeping his options open. “Iraq must move from passive to more active cooperation,” says the Guinean ambassador. For now, that is the perfect answer.

CROSSING JORDAN

The Devil’s advocate may say, “Well, yes, perhaps little Guinea can be pushed around by waving the example of Yemen in their face. But surely not states that matter to U.S. foreign policy like Pakistan or Mexico.”

Consider, counselor, the case of Jordan. The late King Hussein learned the hard way in 1990 about the cost of defying Washington. Jordan’s King, then a rare reliable ally in the Middle East, felt he could not risk domestic unrest by siding against Saddam Hussein, who was (and remains) popular there for his anti-American posturing. The result: American aid to Jordan plummeted from $993 million in 1990 to just over $200 million two years later.

Only an intensive lobbying effort by then-Secretary of State James Baker on Jordan’s behalf, along with a quiet nod from the Israelis, who needed Jordan as an intermediary with the Palestinians in those days, saved King Hussein from a complete cutoff. As with Yemen, the Saudis and Kuwait followed suit, slicing another $500 million a year from the $1 billion they had given to Jordan for decades as a show of solidarity with Palestinian refugees there. Before Jordan’s trials were over and all was forgiven in the mid-1990s, food riots had shaken the kingdom and its economy had sunk into deep recession.

“If you were dealing with a representative government in Jordan it would not be going the way it is going,” one international banker with family ties in Jordan told me. “Jordan’s in dire straits economically and they need the help. The U.S. embassy in Amman is a beehive of activity, and they need that to continue.”

THE WORLD’S ENGINE

Globalization ensures that every country on that council, no matter how it feels about the prospect of war with Iraq, has a competing interest in maintaining good relations with the United States:

Angola is trying to organize a conference to rebuild the country after years of civil war and to increase the market share for Angolan oil in the United States;

Chile wants to join the North American Free Trade Agreement and seeks guarantees of strong U.S. support in international financial markets;

Mexico wants concessions on immigration, water rights, support in international markets and more aid to fight drug trafficking;

Cameroon, one of the better economies in its region, wants to increase the growing trade surplus it has with America — based on bananas, timber and rubber. The United States has pressed for tax and tariff reform and could easily please the African nation by dropping these demands.

The European Union, of course, can offer debt relief, aid or policy incentives of equal or even greater value than those on offer from Washington. But the European Union is split over Iraq. Indeed, a majority within the EU appear to support the American and British position, if you include the “new” members in Eastern Europe that France’s President Jacques Chirac chided for failing to mind their tongues on the matter.

That leaves France and Germany working bilaterally to prevent Washington’s influence from winning the nine votes it needs. In purely mathematical terms, it simply is no contest.

In the final analysis, of course, France could just veto the whole idea of declaring Iraq in material breach. Yet many feel that France may shrink from casting a veto. For, despite France’s determination to show that its opinion cannot be ignored, the United States holds a critical trump card. If France casts a veto, it may doom the one venue where it is still counted among the “Great Powers.” As Napoleon once said, “I know when it is necessary, how to leave the skin of the lion to assume that of the fox.”


Mail your thoughts to Michael Moran, request to join (or be removed from) his email notification list. Or read past Brave New World columns.

Copyright MSNBC 2003

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