The inspections trap

Posted: Nov 15, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--(BEG ITAL)It is an inspections regime that is intended to test his (Saddam's) willingness to cooperate, not to test the ability of Hans Blix find something in Iraq. --Condoleezza Rice, Fox News Sunday, Nov. 10. Yes, but if Hans can't find something, we won't know Saddam didn't cooperate. Of course, there is no doubt that Saddam will cheat, but unless Hans comes through, we won't be able to prove it, certainly not to the satisfaction of France, Russia and Saddam's other lawyers on the U.N. Security Council. Then we will be back to where we began: having to choose to go it alone or back down for lack of international support. For all of Rice's brave words, Security Council Resolution 1441 puts Hans Blix in the driver's seat. He will decide where and how Iraqi scientists are interrogated. The United States had wanted them taken out of the country and offered asylum, so they could speak freely. Weapons inspectors from the 1990s say that Iraqi scientists who talked to them disappeared. Rice nonetheless has appealed to the patriotism of Iraqi scientists in disclosing information. As long as the price of patriotism is certain death, however, no one is going to talk. Blix is not very eager to take scientists out of the country. It is not even clear how eager he is to find anything. Blix is an international civil servant. Does he want to go home to Sweden as the man who blew the whistle that triggered the invasion of Iraq? (Perhaps the U.S. should offer (BEG ITAL)him asylum.) Resolution 1441 also requires that any Iraqi noncooperation or misbehavior be reported to the Security Council--by Blix. The administration gamely answers that the United States always reserves the right to make its own judgment and act in its own defense. Of course it does. And no one could stop us. But since that would violate the U.N. resolution, it would forfeit precisely the international consensus we have been so loudly trumpeting. That's the downside. But there is an upside: There is time between now and then. Right now--and until we might have to abandon the Security Council and go it alone--the war option against Iraq enjoys international legitimacy. The threat of war is sanctioned by a unanimous Security Council. Moreover, the threat of war is in the very service of the Security Council--indeed, of the U.N., the world, the cosmos--because the threat underpins the U.N.'s demand that Iraq disarm. Resolution 1441 creates a window of legitimacy for the war option. That window allows an accelerated and open buildup of American military power around Iraq. Until now, we have been quietly expanding our air base in Qatar, moving troops into Kuwait, sending our bombers to Diego Garcia. No more need to tiptoe. We can pour everything in openly, indeed ostentatiously. It is, after all, the muscle behind the U.N. This window of legitimacy also makes it easier for countries neighboring Iraq to cooperate with the United States in war planning. Turkey, Jordan and the Gulf states have been hesitant to do or say anything too publicly. Now they can easily justify their cooperation: They too are acting in the service of the U.N. by giving substance to the ``serious consequences'' that might compel Saddam to comply and thus vindicate the U.N. Alas, the upside has a downside. We've been given time, but so has Saddam. Time to hide his weapons. Time even to distribute them through Iraqi agents--aka diplomats using diplomatic pouches--into the heart of the enemy. (We still don't know where last year's anthrax came from.) Time to give the stuff to terrorists who, as Osama's tape suggests, are now prepared to make common cause with Saddam. Lots of time. Blix does not have to report to the Security Council until Feb. 21. The Gulf War (BEG ITAL)ended on Feb. 27. Beginning hostilities that late, with hot weather approaching, would be extremely hazardous for the United States. Saddam knows this. So does the Security Council. That's the game they're playing. President Bush remains apparently sincere in his determination to rid the world of Saddam and his weapons. The question of the day, the question on which everything hinges, is whether, when the window of legitimacy begins to close, Bush can find his way out of the trap set for him by the Security Council.