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HONOLULU — When it comes to dealing with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, U.S. President George W. Bush’s Sept. 12 speech to the United Nations General Assembly has finally put the ball back where it belongs: first in the U.N.’s and then in Baghdad’s court . . . and how the former acts will largely determine how Hussein and ultimately the Bush administration responds.

This time last year, the world had rallied behind the United States in the wake of the horrific Sept. 11 attacks. The White House’s initial response solidified that support. It was deliberate, carefully thought out and fully coordinated with a growing international coalition that saw almost all the nations of the world contribute in some manner to the war on terrorism’s initial prosecution. Much of that support and good will has been squandered, however, as the administration (or at least many of its more vocal hawks) seemed to take their eye off the ball in their eagerness to spread the war in Iraq’s direction.

Bush’s management style seemed to allow loose cannons to fire at will as hawks and doves engaged in an increasingly public debate over Hussein’s fate. “Regime change” (which one should recall was a stated objective of the Clinton administration as well) became synonymous with military action that, in turn, became synonymous with a U.S. march on Baghdad — one that many uninformed members of the media were declaring to be imminent, despite the lack of approved war plans or combat and logistic support forces on the ground. It took Bush far too long to remember that he had been elected not just to manage but also to lead.

Now that he seems to have figured it out, however, the question is, how will the world, and most specifically the U.N. Security Council, respond? For those — the Chinese foremost among them — who have long argued that a multilateral approach (through the United Nations) rather than unilateralism was the proper way to proceed, Bush has finally laid down the gauntlet. “All the world now faces a test and the United Nations a difficult and defining moment,” Bush asserted. Is the U.N. prepared to enforce resolutions or only to make them, he seems to be asking, noting that Iraq is currently violating no less than 16 standing UNSC resolutions. In Kosovo, then-President Bill Clinton and America’s NATO allies let the U.N. off the hook by presuming that it would not respond and proceeding based on that assumption. The old Chinese saying “be careful what you wish for because you might get it” now applies. Some UNSC members may soon be secretly wishing Bush had proceeded alone — it is much easier to criticize Washington than to make tough decisions for oneself.

The biggest problem with Washington’s earlier approach is that it took attention away from the problem — Iraq’s continued flouting of the U.N. and Hussein’s accumulation of weapons of mass destruction capability — and placed it on the nature of the cure rather than on the disease. There will no doubt still be a tendency in the media to watch U.S. military movements in and around the Persian Gulf more carefully than diplomatic maneuvers in New York, but the crucial battle at least for the next few weeks will be a political rather than a military one, and now it is the U.N.’s rather than Washington’s credibility that appears at stake. “Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding,” Bush rightly asked, “or will it be irrelevant?”

This provides China with a golden opportunity to become part of the solution, rather than be seen (as many of its detractors claim) as part of the problem. Will China now speak out loudly for strict adherence to existing resolutions? Will Beijing back a new intrusive inspection regime and also be prepared to enforce it when Hussein tests it, as history says he will? Or will it confirm the suspicion of those who charge that China’s enthusiasm for multilateralism is all talk, no action? The same questions apply to the other UNSC members, and especially to the Russians and the French, whose willingness to turn a blind eye to past Iraqi indiscretions has emboldened Hussein to continue to defy and thus denigrate the U.N.

I am against unilateral U.S. military action in Iraq and would prefer to see the use of force avoided completely. But I am also against the unchecked expansion of Iraq’s WMD program and its continued flouting of U.N. resolutions, which serve to reinforce the argument of those who see unilateral military action as the only solution to what is clearly a legitimate (and growing) security problem.

The big question before us today, the one that demands the attention of the international media, is not “will (or when will) the U.S. attack?” but will the U.N. Security Council finally act forcefully to restore its own credibility . . . and with it the credibility of those in Washington and elsewhere who have long argued that Washington must remain on a cooperative, multilateral, internationalist path? Or will the members of the UNSC prove the unilateralists right?

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