Iraq: Last superpower defied by friends and enemies alike

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The US is once more flexing its muscles in the Gulf, sending another aircraft carrier and hinting at military action. But this week has seen the weaknesses of US diplomacy cruelly exposed. As Mary Dejevsky explains, the world's only superpower is having increasing trouble getting others to acknowledge its leadership.

However Mr Clinton decides to proceed with Iraq - and the question boils down to whether, and then when, to use military force - he cannot escape one conclusion. In expelling American weapons inspectors from the country, Iraq has successfully defied the United States, and if Washington uses force, it will split, perhaps irrevocably, the international alliance that has held more or less firm since the end of the Gulf War six years ago.

Throughout the week, Washington has tried to persuade itself, and the rest of the world, that Baghdad is at odds with the "international community" as represented by the United Nations. Technically, this is true: Iraq is in breach of a succession of UN Security Council resolutions. In expelling American nationals working for the UN, it has overridden a cardinal UN rule - that no country may pick and choose members of UN teams. "It is," said a Pentagon spokesman, "as though an ex-convict were trying to pick his own parole officer."

So far, however, Washington has been unable to convince any but its most loyal (and dependent) allies that the authority of the UN is worth fighting for. Of course, the United States has the military might to act by itself if it chooses. But the point is that it has tried to forge a broad anti- Iraq alliance in the diplomatic arena - and failed.

Initially, it had difficulty even in getting the latest, largely token, sanction approved by the Security Council: the travel ban on Iraqi officials deemed to have obstructed UN weapons inspections. France, Russia, China and Egypt all wavered. For different reasons, these countries do not regard the further isolation of Iraq as being in their - or even the international - interest.

This diplomatic failure would be bad enough for the US, but it is not an isolated case. Relations with Israel are as bad as they have been for years. The peace process is moribund. In protest, many Arab states are boycotting a US-sponsored economic conference in Qatar next week, but they will go to Tehran next month for a conference of Islamic states. The US has no dialogue with Iran, but failed to convince others they should complete its isolation.

The one global superpower is finding that it cannot persuade other people to do what it wants by diplomacy alone, and its difficulties do not stop at the Middle East.

Even the Europeans and Canadians are chafing. They have challenged US laws that would penalise foreign businesses for trading with Iraq, Iran and Cuba - regimes that the US wants isolated. The American hero of the Bosnia settlement, Richard Holbrooke, returned from Cyprus this week with nothing to show for his diplomatic efforts there, and little hope either.

The only bright spot was the agreement of North Korea to send a delegation to Switzerland for four-party talks on the future of the Korean peninsula early next year. Switzerland, however, was not the venue the US had planned for the talks. The preliminary (failed) talks took place at the UN. Clearly, North Korea wanted, and got, a venue that they regarded as more neutral.

There is a sense in which Washington's diplomatic problems abroad begin at home, with the complexion of Congress and the mood of voters. This week, Mr Clinton suffered two signal political failures, both of which clip Washington's diplomatic wings. Forsaken by a majority of Congressmen from his own Democratic Party, he had to abandon his attempt to enhance his authority to negotiate international trade agreements - a defeat that called into question US commitment to free trade. On Thursday, Congress rejected a carefully wrought deal under which the US would repay its $1bn debt to the United Nations.

These defeats sent the message that, whatever Mr Clinton might say, the US is not interested in "abroad", except on its own, strictly limited terms.

This is not primarily a failure of foreign policy. Certainly, the absence of a grand scheme and clear priorities is a handicap, but it may be the inevitable consequence of the collapse of the Soviet threat. Certainly, perceived contradictions between the US policy of "constructive engagement" (talking and trade) applied to China, and its demonising of Iraq, Iran and Cuba, leave scepticism and confusion in their wake.

But the main failure is one of diplomacy: Washington is failing to convince others that they and the US have interests and values in common. It seems to be losing the art of winning friends and influencing people, even the art of keeping the friends it has.

At the summit of industrialised nations in Denver earlier this year, US officials alienated even ardent Ameriphiles by flaunting US economic success, prompting others to retort with the figures that America was not counting - for poverty, crime, infant mortality and exclusion from healthcare. On his Latin America tour last month, Mr Clinton met protests against what was seen as US economic bullying. In Europe, people are talking again about the return of the "big, ugly American".

Last month, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich,was moved to warn an academic audience that the US had to show more "sensitivity" in its diplomacy, or risk isolation. America's handling of the latest fracas with Iraq, inside and outside the United Nations, could prove to be a textbook case - and it is not over yet.