Posted: Nov 28, 2002 12:00 AM
Perhaps as early as today we will have a report of some sort from the inspection team in Iraq. There are 17 inspectors on the ground, and a spokesman said on Monday that the team was specifically entitled to go wherever they chose. You would not expect the head coach of a football team -- he added -- to reveal where you were headed. But it is not denied that chief inspector Hans Blix has in hand the locations of pre-eminently suspicious sites.

What do these look like? Are they sites that have radiated especially noticeable tracks? An intensity of emanations of some kind? Picked up by sensors in our airplanes, or by devices bouncing up and down via satellites? The layman doesn't know, but laymen are apprehensive on several grounds. What if there is nothing there? That would be worrying in an ironic way -- like discovering that the arsonist you have finally surrounded has no matches in his pocket.

But in this matter, President Bush has not adequately communicated. The administration has spoken as if it were a certitude that the weapons of mass destruction are either there, or inchoately there. Enough emphasis has been placed on this assumption to have made it an apparently indispensable part of the strategic reckoning. That part of America that has opposed the ultimatums we have given would be disappointed, not to say dumbfounded, if we actually came upon a mini nuclear bomb halfway completed, or a tank full of poison gas, or chemical weapons of mass destruction.

The first official deadline for the U.N. inspection team is not until Dec. 8. This will be a critical date for inconsequential reasons. That is when Saddam Hussein is supposed to turn everything over to us, but this runs into the interesting problem that he insists there is nothing to turn over. We are supposed to have, by Dec. 8, a complete list of Iraqi weapons sites and dual-use installations, industrial plants, agricultural sites, medical labs and research centers that could have both civilian and military applications. How many of such sites are there in Iraq? Certainly hundreds, possibly thousands.

On or before Jan. 27, the inspection team will report (a) that they have got the incriminating goods; (b) that they do not have them and can't find them; (c) that if they exist, they are so well hidden as to be inaccessible. The administration has persauded Congress and the American people that there is only one alternative then left to us, which is to invade Iraq and immobilize the regime.

Some skeptics are saying that there weren't ever such materials. But it wasn't a candy factory that the Israelis took out in 1981. And there are thousands of Kurdish survivors who saw happen the gas warfare of 1988. The strategic question has to do with whether the capabilitites of the same man who set out to build a nuclear plant, and proceeded with genocidal measures against the Kurds, is safely permitted to stay in power.

The cry against our venture in Iraq calls out against American imperialism. It is here and there asserted that what we really intend to do is install ourselves critically in the Mideast and in pressure points elsewhere in the style of orthodox imperialists.

Granted, if, in order to replace Saddam Hussein, a military invasion is required, one can't reasonably expect that there would be no U.S. soldiers in Baghdad five years from now. Everyone wishes, retrospectively, that there had been military there beginning in 1991. But the accusation has to do with American designs. Do we feel the same compulsion the Romans felt, and the Mongols, and the British, French and Germans, to install ourselves abroad?

Some critics have pointed out that, after all, we still have troops in Japan and in Germany, a half-century and more since winning World War II. But what is notable in our armored divisions in Germany and the Far East is that precisely zero effort has been made to Americanize the host countries, beyond the invincible reaches of Coca-Cola and McDonald's. We insisted, in Japan and Berlin, only that the conquered countries adopt liberal reforms, which they did.

What is it that would cause George W. Bush to wish to deploy troops abroad other than to guard against accretions of weapons of mass destruction? One need not doubt the president's motives, while still advising him that it is time to talk to the American people directly on the point: What do we want, beyond immobilizing Saddam Hussein?