My thought: we're going to the Security Council because UNSC Resolution 1441 calls for “consultation” (but not a second resolution) before Iraq gets its “serious consequences” (i.e. an invasion). Just as 1441 was Iraq's final chance to declare its weapons of mass destruction and delivery mechanisms (which it has clearly failed), February 5th is the Security Council's final chance to declare whether it is relevant to the international order — the General Assembly long ago abdicated any relevance on that point, so the UNSC is basically the only credible U.N. organ left. The Security Council has three basic options:
Rubber stamp the US/UK/Australian/Spanish/Italian/Turkish/Kuwaiti/Qatarian coalition in a second resolution. (Apologies if I left someone important out.)
Not pass a second resolution but concede the US position that one isn't necessary (through a procedural motion not subject to veto, or without a formal vote).
Actively oppose coalition action (i.e. via a French explicit, unilateral veto or through a threat to veto any second resolution — the UNSC equivalent to a Senate “hold”) and be ignored by the multilateral US-led coalition.
As an institutional decision (to reinforce the illusion of the UNSC as arbiter of all international disputes), option one makes the most sense, while as a political decision (to not undercut the UNSC while at the same time leaving France free to rhetorically oppose coalition action in Iraq), option two makes the most sense.
Option three is only a viable option if the French (not the British or the US) have decided that the UNSC, and by extension the UN system as a whole, is no longer an important venue for French political influence over international events. However, such a decision would severely undercut France's efforts to “punch above its weight class” in international affairs, would probably lead to the collapse of NATO and the fragmentation of the European Union, and might lead to active US and British efforts to curtail France's neo-imperialist foreign policy and military intervention in Africa, none of which (obviously) are in France's best interest.
So, the reason Colin Powell will be at the Security Council on the 5th is to pursue option two — Security Council acquiesence. If he gets a second resolution, he'll be happy. If he gets French stonewalling, it won't matter. It moves the timetable back to around February 8 (slightly more than a week from Den Beste's original prediction) for a start of hostilities.
The bigger question is why is President George W. Bush paying any attention to the Security Council? Obviously, the polls have something to do with it (although I'm not convinced that they have much meaning on this issue — when war comes, Bush will get overwhelming support even if every single ally isn't involved). I also think that Bush isn't a unilateralist. This may be surprising to the Europeans in the audience, and the anti-war left, but Bush isn't Pat Buchanan or Jesse Helms. Bush repudiated Kyoto because the U.S. Senate indicated in July 1997 95–0 with five abstensions that it wouldn't ratify the treaty; even if all 5 Senators who abstained were closet Kyoto supporters, another 61 Senators would have to be found to ratify it. The Senate has indicated that it would not ratify the International Court of Justice under any forseeable circumstances, despite the previous administration's signature on the treaty.
On the other hand, Bush has promoted increased international cooperation where he has found Senate support, particularly in the area of trade; for example, in his efforts to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement to cover the entire western hemisphere (excluding Cuba), and his promotion of eliminating all tariffs on manufactured goods and sharply curtailing agricultural subsidies in the Doha round at the World Trade Organization. Even in the preparations for war with Iraq, Bush has sought the cooperation from friendly states, and has received it from a majority of the members of NATO and from a number of states in around the Gulf concerned about Iraq's potential threat to their region. None of these are the actions of a unilateralist president. And since Bush isn't a unilateralist, it's hard to believe he'd deliberately seek to undermine the authority of the United Nations — even though other member states, notably our nominal allies France and Germany, seem to be pursuing that end, by undermining the credibility of UNSC resolutions and the weapons inspections process rather than supporting the need for Iraqi compliance.
Steven Den Beste has had a good night's sleep and some e-mails and is significantly less pessimistic today, while Robert Jones is expecting some sort of procedural resolution from the U.N. that can be spun as a “second resolution” by fence-sitters along the lines of “option two” above.
First-time visitors: feel free to look around and see if there's other stuff you like.
Robert Jones says I misinterpreted what he meant about a second resolution; he says:
I was noodling more along a line of thought in which we present a second resolution which says, in diplomatic terms, "We've had enough. The war begins... now". The French and Germans would likely want to waffle and delay as long as possible, hoping to extend the issue out until the point is moot. However, as there can be no vetoing of procedural votes in the UNSC, we can move to terminate debate (which would be a procedural vote) and call for an immediate vote (of the substantive sort) on our resolution.
I'm not sure such a cloture vote is strictly necessary, although it would be politically unpalatable to start the bombing before the UNSC debate was concluded. That's still somewhere in the realm of “option two,” which is more a bunch of related options that all conclude in no substantive additional UNSC action and are more politically expedient than reinforcing of the UNSC's authority over international conflict under the U.N. Charter (“option one”) or further undermining the authority of the Security Council (”option three”).
After thinking some more, what Robert says is clearer to me: rather than as an end in and of itself, he views a procedural “cloture” vote as a step toward a conclusive vote on the substantive issue of whether or not to attack Iraq (the “second vote” the waverers want). “Option two” doesn't countenance a second vote, however, and I don't think the Bush administration really wants one — indeed, pursuing one would concede the Axis of Weasels position that one is needed. If there's a second resolution, it will be proposed by an Axis of Weasels power (probably Germany) in order to stop the U.S. from appearing to act without their blessing, not because the “coalition of the willing” genuinely cares about getting one.