After Secretary of State Colin Powell met with senior officials from the European Union this week, he went out of his way to send the signal that when it comes to Iraq, Washington will "work with our partners in the Security Council to determine the way to go forward."
Signaling the Bush administration's displeasure with Iraq's 12,000-page declaration on its weapons of mass destruction program, even before hearing the first report from the Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, Powell said "We are not encouraged that they have gotten the message or will cooperate based on what we have seen so far in the declaration, but we will stay within the U.N. process." It had to be music to the ears of the EU ministers and other senior diplomats around the world.
The same theme continued after Blix' presentation. Powell told reporters "we will continue to consult with our friends, with our allies, and with all members of the Security Council on how to compel compliance by Iraq with the will of the international community."
Certainly dealing with Iraq through the U.N. is not the only example of the administration's multilateral inclinations.
Venezuela is in crisis with much of the country now in the third week of a general strike against the government of President Hugo Chavez. The oil sector has been shut down and fuel, as well as food, is scare. Washington's approach: support the efforts of the Organization of American States and its envoy. Yes, the State Department did send a senior official to Caracas to work with U.S. diplomats based there but Secretary Powell said "we are in close touch with the Secretary General of the OAS, who is in the lead for the community of American nations on this subject."
And then there is the Middle East peace process. With progress at a standstill in the wake of continued fighting between Israelis and Palestinians, and with upcoming elections scheduled for both parties in early 2003, the Bush administration has embraced other negotiating partners to join its efforts. Together with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and representatives of the European Union, Powell has adopted a multilateral approach to solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem.
Working with members of this so-called "Quartet" Powell is attempting to lay out what the group describes as a "roadmap" to peace, ending with a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and an end to terrorist attacks against Israel. No one is overly optimistic but the approach is a marked departure from the Clinton years when Ambassador Dennis Ross, the Special Middle East Negotiator, was the single address for almost all Middle East peace initiatives.
Make no mistake, Washington will have its say on Venezuela, the Middle East and elsewhere. But Powell is a believer in the multilateral approach to diplomacy, unlike some other senior members of the Bush administration's national security team. Powell was able to convince President Bush that going to the U.N. was the right way to deal with Saddam Hussein, at least as a first step.
The administration may not continue to use the U.N. channel if military action becomes its option — it will most likely assemble a coalition of willing nations — but the key point is that the Bush team will be able to say it tried the diplomatic approach through the U.N., as many on the Security Council urged. For the moment, diplomats around the world can take comfort in Powell's words this week that the U.S. "will stay within the U.N. process."
By Charles M. Wolfson