Tomorrow, 60 days after U.N. weapons inspections resumed in Iraq, the chief weapons inspectors are likely to report to the U.N. Security Council that Baghdad has failed to comply fully with its disarmament obligations. But rather than declaring the end of their mission, the inspectors will request more time to carry out additional inspections.
That request will present President Bush with a diplomatic and political quandary. There is growing sentiment among Security Council members to let the inspections proceed.
"The inspectors have asked for more time," French President Jacques Chirac said earlier this month, "and wisdom requires us to grant this request and the time that is needed." China's foreign minister made the same point: "There's more work to do in terms of the inspection, and it will take some time."
However, time is not something the Bush administration is inclined to give Saddam Hussein. It wants him gone. The administration reluctantly agreed to give U.N. inspections one last chance, but only to determine Baghdad's willingness to give up its weapons program. Baghdad refused, so now it is time to use force.
President Bush repeatedly emphasized this week that time was running out on Saddam Hussein.
"He is delaying, he is deceiving, he is asking for time. He's playing hide-and-seek with inspectors," Bush declared. "This looks like a rerun of a bad movie, and I'm not interested in watching it."
But if the president has decided to go to war, how does he get there from here? Can he persuade a reluctant Security Council to pass a new resolution authorizing a second gulf war? Or will the United States need to go it alone, at the risk of alienating its allies and making its military challenges more daunting?
Most foreign capitals are leery of war with Iraq and have become increasingly so in recent weeks. Partly, this reflects their own domestic politics. Opinion polls show a growing opposition to war32 percent in Britain, 76 percent in Germany and 77 percent in Franceeven if the United Nations were to authorize it.
This sentiment reflects both skepticism about the Iraqi threat and resentment over what is seen as Washington's bullying tactics. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld heightened anger about perceived American arrogance last week when he dismissed France and Germany as the "old Europe." The French economics minister fired back that "this 'old Europe' has resilience, and is capable of bouncing back. And it will show it, in time."
Foreign leeriness about unseating Saddam also reflects a fundamental difference between the United States and the rest of the world over the purpose of the U.N. inspections and the appropriate trigger for war. The view in most foreign capitals is that war will be justified only if the inspectors turn up credible evidence that Baghdad is developing weapons of mass destructionand without such a smoking gun, the weapons inspections should be allowed to continue.
The smoking-gun metaphor irritates many Bush administration officials. They argue that the burden of proof lies with Iraq to show it has forsworn weapons of mass destruction, and not with inspectors to prove it hasn't. Some are also convinced that U.S. allies will argue for continued inspections no matter what the inspectors find. If inspections had uncovered something significant, Rumsfeld has complained, "the argument might then have been that inspections were in fact working and, therefore, they should be given more time to work."
The reluctance of other countries to adopt the administration's perspective creates a diplomatic and political headache for President Bush. Many countries have said they will support a U.S. military effort only if it has the United Nations' blessing. Polls show that the American public's support for war against Iraq also turns on whether it enjoys broad international backing.
In one recent poll, 81 percent said they would support a war if it were conducted by a multinational coalition acting with U.N. authorization. But less than a third would support an invasion if the United States acted on its own. Equally significant, Americans by a 2-1 ratio favor giving inspectors more time over going to war immediately.
An inability to secure Security Council support and the lack of popular support for an immediate decision to go to war would not by themselves prevent the administration from moving against Saddam. Congress has already authorized President Bush to use force, and most Americans will be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. But acting without a Security Council authorization would sharply increase the diplomatic and political risks of war.
Events could still spare President Bush from having to make tough choices. Saddam Hussein could decide to step down, or, more likely, he could be toppled by his security forces. Turkish and Egyptian leaders reportedly have encouraged Saddam to go into exile. Saudi leaders apparently are trying to encourage a coup. U.S. officials have sought to encourage both efforts. They have publicly offered leniency to senior Iraqis who break with Saddam. They have even hinted that they might allow Saddam to go to a safe haven abroadBelarus is often mentionedif that would avoid war.
U.N. inspectors could also uncover the smoking gun that other countries have been demanding. Whatever they find would have to be more substantial than the 12 empty chemical warheads discovered earlier this month. Those warheads were for rockets with a range of 12 miles, and hardly constituted the threat that most foreign capitals would say justifies war.
If events don't settle the issue, President Bush will need to decide whether to force the question. War is not inevitable. He has been extremely careful over the past year not to commit himself publicly to waging war. The credibility he gained with the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, along with the American public's uncertainty about the wisdom of war, gives him political freedom to allow the inspections process to play itself out. The war hawks in and outside the administration would be outraged, but they constitute a decided minority in American politics.
A decision to allow the inspections process to continue indefinitely has costs for the White House, however. The most obvious is it allows Saddam to remain in power. There is also the fallout from putting the U.S. troop buildup in the Persian Gulf on hold. Troops poised to go into battle don't get much training or military leave. This will eventually degrade both military readiness and morale. It also leaves U.S. defenses elsewhere in the world more vulnerable.
Beyond these problems, waiting may make it harder to move against Baghdad in the future. Foreign capitals might interpret continued reliance on inspections as evidence that the administration has lost its nerve. This could embolden them to resist Washington down the road.
It would also take the heat off Baghdad. Iraqi generals watching which way the political winds are blowing could decide that Saddam has won once again, thereby killing any chance they would foment a coup that would avoid a war. Confident that the world is unwilling to confront him, Saddam would once again be inclined to practice the cheat-and-retreat tactics he perfected under the previous U.N. inspections regime.
The White House's instinct, then, will be to cajole foreign capitals into supporting a second gulf war. This strategy of pushing friends and allies to do what they would rather avoid has been the hallmark of this administration's approach.
It was U.S. pressure that first pushed Iraq to the forefront of the international agenda a year ago and then produced a new and tougher U.N. weapons-inspections regime. As administration officials say privately, "If we lead, others will follow."
But will they? There is little doubt that Washington will gain the support from the countries it needs to wage war. Britain has announced that it is sending more than 30,000 soldiers to the Persian Gulf to stand alongside U.S. forces. Key gulf statesincluding Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrainwill provide the critical basis from which to conduct an invasion. Turkey is also likely to let U.S. forces attack Iraq from the north. Even Saudi Arabia may well allow U.S. forces to operate from its territory. From a strictly military point of view, this is all the United States requires to fight and win a second gulf war.
Politically, it will be hard to get a positive vote in the Security Council at this time. Germany has consistently opposed war as an option. More important are France, Russia and China, who wield the veto. All three favor giving inspectors more time, though each has strong reasons not to veto a resolution the United States has put great stakes in. They could, however, fashion a coalition on the Security Council that deprives Washington of the nine positive votes it would need. Indeed, the harder the Bush administration pushes without offering anything in return, the more likely this outcome becomes.
Would failure to get a Security Council mandate matter? The administration has argued that a second resolution is unnecessary because the United Nations has already implicitly authorized the use of force. But the issue is not a legal one. It is political, and ultimately strategic.
Having international support going into the war will make it easier to have broad multinational involvement in dealing with the major challenges after the war. There is little doubt the United States can win a war on its own, but it cannot win the peace without the help of others.
Setting a deadline
Is there a way for Bush to square the circleto gain sufficient international support for a war that many are now wary of starting?
One way would be to take a page out of his father's book and obtain Security Council agreement to give the inspectors more time, but set a hard deadline for Saddam to comply. Twelve years ago, the United Nations told Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait by a certain date or face the consequences. Saddam refused, and his military was defeated in Operation Desert Storm.
Today, a firm U.N. demand that Saddam either give up his weapons by March 15 or be defeated in war might have a different, less violent outcome. Either way, Washington winsby securing Iraq's voluntary disarmament or else ensuring international support for war.