Don't 'go wobbly'

Posted: Sep 17, 2002 12:00 AM
The TV networks' Sunday talk shows -- those closely monitored barometers of the latest shifts in Washington's political and policy high-pressure fronts -- suggest that, in the wake of President Bush's sensational address to the United Nations last week, serious consideration is now being given to a truly hare-brained idea: Sending international inspectors back to Iraq accompanied by up to 50,000 heavily armed U.S. and other troops. The notion is that these forces would permit so-called "coercive inspections" to be conducted. According to its proponents, if Saddam tried to play hide-and-seek with the UN, as he routinely did from 1991 to 1998, the military units assigned to the inspectors would wack him. Perhaps, we are told, they would respond by destroying the facility or palace to which the Iraqis were denying access; perhaps they would "coerce" better behavior by going after some other target of interest. It is not an accident that the advocates of coercive inspections are, by and large, people who have opposed Mr. Bush's declared strategic objective of effecting regime change in Iraq -- an objective that was actually first made U.S. policy in 1998 by Congress and then-President Clinton. Ironically, their proposal has most, if not all, of the down-sides of a military campaign with regime change as its goal, and none of the advantages. For starters, if the United States forcibly inserts armed units into Iraq for the purpose of liberating the latter's people, it will be able to tap into considerable support from the Iraqi citizenry. If, on the other hand, its forces enter under the UN banner, not to end Saddam's tyranny, but in what will likely be seen by the locals -- and certainly portrayed by the Iraqi dictator -- as an unwarranted willingness to shoot up the place, the new inspectorate is likely to face open and perhaps life-threatening hostility from those we should be helping to free. It does not take much imagination to see how this situation could deteriorate into one that would make "Blackhawk Down" look like the Somalis treated our GIs to a church social. The difference would be that -- instead of facing AK-47s and anti-tank missile-wielding "technicals" in the hands of ill-trained ruffians -- if we lack popular support in Iraq, Saddam could ensure that Baghdad and other targets for inspection bristle with skilled and disciplined irregulars armed with sufficient firepower to decimate the inspectors and their "coercive" companions. Such attacks could, of course, provide the pretext for an international onslaught that would, at last, bring down Saddam Hussein. And, it is assumed, such a possibility will deter the Butcher of Baghdad from interfering with the inspectors -- let alone allowing them to be shot at. If, however, this calculation turns out to be but the latest in a series of underestimations of Saddam's capacity for psychopathic behavior, at the very least, large numbers of UN and other personnel may lose their lives. Even well-armed units in-country would find it difficult to defend themselves. In such an event, the United States would likely be called upon to lead an invasion of Iraq for the purposes of rescuing American and other countries' nationals effectively held hostage there. If so, our commanders would be obliged to conduct operations that will surely prove more complicated and, in all likelihood, considerably more costly than would be the case if President Bush were simply now to authorize them to liberate Iraq and, thereby, to secure the active support of the vast majority of the Iraqi people. The inadvisability of "coercive inspections" is only further underscored by the fact that, even if Saddam does not interfere with their conduct, the inspectors are unlikely to disarm Iraq. Given the four years (or more) that Saddam has had to squirrel away his weapons of mass destruction programs, absent his unimaginable cooperation, inspections will require impracticably comprehensive access, incredible forensic skill, breakthroughs made possible by defectors and considerable luck to get at what are sure to be widely dispersed, deeply buried and/or mobile WMD facilities. At best, this will take time. Hans Blix, the current head of the UN's inspection arm, has said he might be able to provide an idea about what Saddam Hussein has in the way of weapons of mass destruction within a year. In the meantime, the Iraqi despot may be able to achieve the nuclear wannabe's brass ring: a functioning atomic or even thermonuclear device -- thereby dramatically changing the complexion of the strategic threat posed to us and others by Saddam's regime. The final problem with the inspections approach -- whether coercive or otherwise -- is that, even if they could somehow be made completely effective and actually achieve Iraq's complete disarmament, so long as Saddam remains in power, he will retain the know-how and trained personnel needed to reconstitute whatever chemical, biological and/or nuclear weapons program he desires. This may take no more than six months. But it could take considerably less time if the international community foolishly declares Iraq "disarmed," ends sanctions and officially allows the resumption of unmonitored trade with Iraq. For many years, the U.S. government has wisely resisted appeals for the creation of a UN army, or the permanent assignment to the United Nations of American forces for military operations. President Bush would be ill-advised to what would amount to a departure from this sensible policy, especially for a mission as poorly conceived and fraught with peril as "coercive inspections" in Iraq. Fortunately, Mr. Bush appears to have appreciated that only after Saddam and his ruling clique have been removed from power and the Iraqi people liberated will we be able to ensure that "the world's most dangerous weapons" are truly kept out of such malevolent hands. He is under intensifying pressure to accept an alternative that is, despite its clear defects (or perhaps because of them), satisfactory to the UN and others opposed to regime change in Iraq. At such a moment the President would do well to recall what Margaret Thatcher once therapeutically told his father: "George, this is no time to 'go wobbly!'"