Diplomatic Diary: Lining Up The Votes

With a broad grin, the French foreign minister walked out of the Security Council chamber looking like he owned the place. Indeed, Dominique de Villepin seemed so cocksure of victory last week that he left the debate over Iraq's future before the crucial wavering nations--especially the three African countries--had said their piece.

Either the French are playing a perfectly-pitched game of psychological warfare, or they know they can easily defeat the second United Nations resolution against Iraq, which is likely to come to a vote later this week.

Having promised to block the resolution--and what he called its "automatic use of force"--the suave French minister held a trilingual question-and-answer session with the world's media. After taking questions in English and French, de Villepin was so keen to show off his command of languages that he called out for a Spanish question--and was prepared to wait for a reporter to dream one up. As if his linguistic displays were not ambitious enough, he challenged President Bush to appear in person at the U.N., trashed the logic of his British counterpart and ridiculed U.S. policy in the Middle East as black magic.

While reporters joked about lobbing a question in Italian, de Villepin swept away to prepare for his tour of the African nations on the Security Council: Cameroon, Guinea and Angola. Of those, the first two are French-speaking, and the government of the third was historically allied with the Soviet Union and Cuba after it obtained independence from Portugal in 1975.

The contrast in style with Secretary of State Colin Powell was striking. Where de Villepin was multilingual, Powell stuck to his single-language audience. Where de Villepin swaggered, Powell seemed weary--his voice repeatedly cracked during his presentation as if he were suffering a late winter flu. Where de Villepin embarked on a tour of the world, Powell made no plans to travel to press his case. (Instead, Powell's aides said the Guinean foreign minister was coming to Washington.) Where de Villepin looked like he was heading for victory, Powell seemed to take a backseat to Jack Straw, his British counterpart, in trying to avert defeat.

Of course, appearances can often be deceptive at the U.N. The place looks and feels like the capital of diplomacy, where the world's leaders get down to business. The arcane process, the drab interior, the signs in French and English: everything points to the seriousness of the work. But much of the actual public work amounts to little more than grandstanding and showmanship. Photo ops are staged for the folks back home, while the private discussions tell a very different story. Powell walked a long corridor beside the Security Council with Igor Ivanov, his Russian counterpart, just to shake hands for the cameras. But Ivanov's message to Powell was far less friendly. In spite of the intense diplomacy--including a full court press on President Vladimir Putin's chief of staff, who visited Washington earlier this month--the Russians are refusing to lean towards the American position.

So if the grandstanding is no guide to future performance, what investments can either side make to win over the waverers in these final frenetic days of diplomacy? Take the African votes for instance. A glance at their economic profiles tells much of the story. The combined gross domestic product of the three African nations is just $55 billion. That compares to the administration's latest package of tax cuts, which is valued at around $695 billion. If it was just about the money, the United States could buy several African votes and still have cash left over to eliminate the double taxation of dividends.

But it's not just about the aid dangled in front of some of the poorest countries on the planet. They too face political problems and historical relations that they cannot avoid. Historically, the United States has had little influence with the three African nations and is playing some very last-minute catch-up. Moreover, those nations have their own internal opposition to war that makes a compromise with Washington very hard to accomplish. "If you think things are hard for us," said one British official, "they're dire for these African leaders." With that in mind, the British sent one of their highest-profile black ministers, Baroness Amos, to the region to follow the French foreign minister this week.

In public, Powell's aides and British officials remain optimistic they can muster the nine votes they need in the Security Council. Some are rashly speaking of winning 10 votes. But the reality is that France has already won this debate. That's not the debate over war and Iraq, of course. It's the debate the French, Russians and Chinese prefer--the debate about how to rein in U.S. power and create a world order they can shape for their own ends. In that discussion, the French and their friends can count on the support of the U.N.'s staff--the weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, and Secretary General Kofi Annan, who declared that it would be illegal to wage war in Iraq without a second resolution.

"We have to decide how we want the world to be ruled, how do we want the different crises of the world to be solved," de Villepin told the media at the U.N. "And we believe that one country can win war in Iraq, but not a country alone can build peace. For that, you need the legitimacy of the United Nations." The French may well be right about the need for international support in rebuilding Iraq. After all, even the White House acknowledges that the post-Saddam era in Iraq will involve the broader international community. But the French are seeking something far bigger than a share of the business in the new Iraq. They want to reshape the world in a way that restrains American power and gives a greater voice to the weakest nations. For the Cameroons of the world, that's a pitch that is hard to beat with cash alone.

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