President Bush has played his cards well on Iraq, and we are so close to victory that it would be a tragedy if a few war hawks pushed us into an unnecessary invasion and occupation of an Arab country. Much of the world believes the United States will go to war with Iraq no matter what Iraq does, no matter what the U.N. inspectors find.
They believe this because they think, in the words of columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, that invading Iraq is not about weapons of mass destruction but rather "it's the first step in remaking the entire Middle East." I worry that the United States would be viewed as the aggressor if it undertakes military action in Iraq without providing clear and convincing evidence that Iraq has a nuclear weapons program or retains significant chemical and biological weapons stocks that threaten its neighbors.
Other countries question America's motives because the rationale for war appears to be in constant flux. During the Clinton administration, we said Saddam Hussein had to go before there could be lasting peace and normalization with Iraq, and we squeezed Iraq with aerial bombing and economic sanctions.
After Bush assumed office, with Colin Powell as secretary of state, U.S. policy subtly, and wisely, shifted. Powell suggested that peace was possible and the sanctions could be lifted, but only if Hussein completely disarmed himself of weapons of mass destruction. Other high-level U.S. officials let it be known that they, nevertheless, believed war with Iraq was still inevitable because they believed Hussein would never disarm voluntarily.
Iraq protested that they already had disarmed, but of course no American president could accept the word of a demonstrated serial liar like Hussein. The rationale shifted again. U.S. officials emphasized that the burden of proof was now on Iraq to demonstrate conclusively that it had, in fact, disarmed. Such proof, however, was impossible, we said, since Iraq had kicked U.N. weapons inspectors out of Iraq in 1998 and refused to allow them back in, which was not exactly accurate.
Iraq didn't "kick the inspectors out" the way North Korea just did. The United Nations withdrew the inspectors to protect them from Bill Clinton's bombing campaign. Hussein did prevent the inspectors from returning for a period of time subsequently but then sent quiet, back-channel word to the United States that he would allow inspectors back in if assurances were given that economic sanctions would be lifted if nothing was found.
When Iraq publicly hinted they would allow inspectors back into the country, the United States said it was all part of Iraq's strategy of "cheat and retreat" and that any new inspections must be limited in duration and backed up by the threat of force. The United Nations agreed and unanimously passed Resolution 1441, demanding "immediate, unimpeded, unrestricted access" to any places or people that weapons inspectors desired to inspect or interview in order to confirm that Iraq was disarmed or to destroy any weapons, equipment or chemical stocks they found that are prohibited to Iraq under previous U.N. resolutions. Immediately, some high-level U.S. officials let it be known that they did not believe the Iraqis would really cooperate with inspections and that we eventually would have to invade Iraq to disarm Hussein.
To date, U.N. inspectors appear to have the access they demand and to have found nothing suspicious beyond about 16 unused artillery shells with warheads capable of carrying a chemical or biological payload, which were packed away in crates in an ammunition storage facility. A high-level administration official said the clean and empty warheads were not justification for war. He was quoted by the Washington Times as saying, "A smoking gun would be if you found a big stockpile with chemicals."
Now the rationale for war seems to be shifting again as some high-level officials contend that a smoking gun will never be produced. Instead, officials are hinting that the casus belli will be a persuasive case that Iraq is not fully cooperating with inspectors; that it continues to import missile engines and other non-WMD equipment and materials barred under the U.N. arms embargo; and that it continually fires on U.S. planes patrolling so-called "no-fly zones," which the United Nations has neither authorized nor views as legal under international law. Such a bill of indictment, persuasive as it may be, would be insufficient to justify bombing or invading and occupying Iraq as long as U.N. inspectors continue to have unfettered access to Iraq sites and personnel.
The next step should be to give U.N. inspectors all of the intelligence information we can to help in their search. We should open direct communications with Iraq, as we have with North Korea, but not to negotiate or offer Hussein a carrot of some kind - quite the contrary. Now is the time to sit down across the table from the Iraqis, eyeball to eyeball, and tell them precisely what they must do to avoid war. Give Iraq a detailed checklist of items and actions we demand before we will stand down militarily.
Are there specific stocks of chemical weapons we know they once had that they cannot account for? Account for them or else, and here specifically is what we will accept as evidence. Do we insist that Hussein and his top lieutenants go into exile? Put it on the list. What about Iraq's WMD scientists? We learned with Germany and Japan after World War II that the only sure way to ensure that a country doesn't develop a nuclear weapons capability in the future is to remove its nuke scientists.
Why not insist that all Iraqi scientists capable of working on WMD be relocated to Crete or some other acceptable locations? Bush has dealt himself a winning hand, and he can have victory without war if he plays his cards right.