Escaping the Inspections Trap

Kenneth M Pollack
Kenneth M Pollack Former Brookings Expert, Resident Scholar - AEI

November 18, 2002

Now that Saddam Hussein has grudgingly agreed to “deal” with UN Security Council Resolution 1441, and UN inspectors have arrived in Iraq, the conventional wisdom is that either Iraq will cooperate with the inspections and be disarmed (and war averted) or it will block the inspectors, at which point the international community will finally rally around the United States in going to war with Iraq. However, these are probably the two least likely outcomes. Instead, it seems most likely that Saddam will cooperate with new inspections without complying with the disarmament requirements of resolution 1441. He probably will allow the inspectors in and allow them to go wherever they want, obstructing their activities only in subtle ways that will be difficult for Washington to claim as clear-cut material breaches. However, he almost certainly will not hand over the key elements of his clandestine weapons of mass destruction programs. This means the Bush Administration will have a hard choice to make in coming weeks: whether to build an international coalition and go to war without the clear provocation of Iraq blocking the inspections (and in the midst of a functioning inspections program), or try to make the inspections work, deferring a decision on war till Iraq makes a major blunder that provides unequivocal evidence of its duplicity.


The greatest problem with the Administration’s decision to make a new inspection regime the cornerstone of its efforts to secure international support for a war with Iraq is that to work, it requires Saddam to make a major miscalculation. In the past, Saddam has often miscalculated and he might do so again in this case. However, there is considerable evidence that he has figured out how to defeat weapons inspections without providing the United States with a pretext for war, and that he intends to stick to this tried-and-true approach. As they did in the 1990s, the Iraqis appear determined simply to deceive and outlast any new inspection regime while looking for ways to divide the UN Security Council. They are likely to succeed.

Iraq’s behavior during the fall suggests that while Saddam may be concerned about the corner he is being backed into, he is still confident that he will prevail and so will allow the inspectors back into Iraq. Iraq has made only very minor military preparations for a war, suggesting that Baghdad is confident that it has a political solution to prevent a U.S.-led invasion. Iraq’s pre-emptive re-acceptance of inspectors after President Bush’s speech to the UN in September, and its ready acquiescence to Hans Blix’s conditions for the return of inspectors were the first signs that Iraq was willing to accept inspections as a way of heading off an attack. Days before the Security Council passed Resolution 1441, Saddam gave a rare interview to the Egyptian newspaper al-‘Usbu in which the interviewer asked him whether he thought that time was working for or against him.1 Saddam replied, “No doubt, time is working for us. We have to buy some more time, and the American-British coalition will disintegrate because of internal reasons and because of the pressure of public opinion in the American and British street.” According to Iraqi state media, on November 5, Saddam told a South African envoy that Iraq would “respect any decision that is issued in accordance with the UN Charter and international law.” This is a very different approach from past Iraqi rhetoric, and implies that Baghdad is preparing to cooperate in order to play out the clock.

But cooperating with the inspections is not the same thing as giving up Iraq’s WMD programs. The Iraqis defeated the first inspection regime and they have every reason to be confident that they can defeat this one too. The first problem that the new inspections will face is that neither they nor any of the intelligence services likely to support them have any solid knowledge of where Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction are hidden. By the mid-1990s the Iraqis had become so good at hiding their prohibited programs that UNSCOM would have declared them essentially disarmed in 1995 had it not been for the defection of Saddam’s son-in-law, Husayn Kamel, who revealed the extent of Iraq’s deception with regard to the hitherto undisclosed biological weapons program. Nevertheless, within a year or so thereafter, the inspectors and all of the Western intelligence agencies were once again stumped, forcing UNSCOM to change its tactics and shift from trying to track down Iraq’s WMD to trying to crack the system the Iraqis were using to hide the programs instead. They hoped that this would reveal some evidence about the actual weapons and production facilities. Iraq had become so proficient at this game—having made important components of the programs mobile and therefore practically unidentifiable—that UNSCOM was able to do little more than turn up occasional circumstantial evidence of Iraqi cheating which Baghdad’s French and Russian advocates dismissed as unimportant and something that could be dealt with through long-term monitoring.

Certainly the new resolution has some additional features designed to make it harder for Iraq to thwart these inspectors as it did their predecessors. For instance, the resolution allows the inspectors to question any Iraqi personnel anywhere they want, including outside of Iraq, and to take their families along as well. However, Iraq is likely to find counters to all of these provisions. Should the inspectors start asking to interrogate Iraqi scientists outside of Iraq, for example, Baghdad may respond by claiming that some of the scientists are dead, others fled the country, still others just don’t want to go (and the Iraqis will gladly put them and their families on al-Jazeerah pleading not to be taken out of Iraq to be interrogated by the inspectors). Still others may be allowed to go but, unbeknownst to the inspectors, the Mukhabarat will have held back one or more important members of the family to ensure the scientists’ good behavior—and since it is highly unlikely that the inspectors will have a complete and accurate roster of all of the family members of all key Iraqi scientists, it will be impossible to know if those scientists really do feel free to speak their minds.

The inspectors will go into Iraq with some new technology to help them reveal Iraq’s cheating, but here too the problems outweigh the benefits. First, some of the technology that the media has claimed will be new for the inspectors isn’t. For example, the UN inspectors possessed ground penetrating radars in the 1990s. In other cases, the new technologies are only likely to be useful if traditional intelligence can first identify the locale of a prohibited facility, and that’s the rub. In a country the size of France, where do you start looking? In the equivalent of Lyons? Paris? Toulouse? Baghdad itself is a city of 5 million people, one of the physically largest in the world, and has thousands and thousands of large buildings that could easily conceal prohibited items. Without good intelligence leads to point the inspectors in the right direction, this new technology could turn out to be little more than expensive baggage. It was the lack of such intelligence that crippled the first inspection regime and thwarted unilateral American efforts to destroy Iraq’s WMD militarily such as during Operation Desert Fox in 1998.

Moreover, Saddam is probably right that time is on his side. The United States was able to strong-arm the Security Council into passing the new resolution with the threat of a unilateral American invasion if the Security Council did not accede to American wishes. However, there is little evidence of a real sea-change in international attitudes toward Iraq—most of the world feels no threat from Saddam and assumes that the United States will take care of him if he ever gets to be a real problem—and for those reasons are unlikely to make an effort to compel him to comply with the new resolution. As was the case in the 1990s, this leaves only the United States (and a handful of allies) to try to enforce Iraqi compliance. However, Washington cannot keep either the American people or its military forces in their current state of preparedness for war with Iraq for very long.

On the military front alone, if the U.S. does not go to war with Iraq this winter it will be difficult to sustain the current build-up of forces in the Persian Gulf for long, perhaps a year at most. Even in that time, other problems requiring the commitment of U.S. forces might crop up. Yet it will take years—probably at least five or six—for an inspection program to succeed in disarming Iraq if it somehow could get the necessary intelligence and international support. The inspectors believe it will take 12-18 months just to establish a new baseline of Iraq’s known WMD sites since the first inspections ended in 1998, and then believe it will take at least three years to conduct a thorough inspection process to try to assess Iraqi disarmament. It is extremely unlikely that the U.S. could sustain the current level of political and military mobilization against Iraq for that period of time, and as soon as this pressure recedes, Saddam will likely step up his obstruction of the inspectors.

The likeliest outcome is that at some point in the future, the United States will find itself right back where we were in 1998: frustrated that Iraq is reneging on its commitments and that the international community isn’t willing to do anything about it. What’s more, the situation could be much worse this time around because Saddam is closer to acquiring nuclear weapons. The consensus among the Western intelligence services is that even if the Iraqis can be prevented from acquiring enriched uranium on the black market (likely, but not certain) it probably will still be able to enrich enough uranium in 3-6 years to acquire one or more nuclear weapons. Aggressive new inspections will almost certainly slow Iraq’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon, but we do not know by how much, nor do we really know how far along Iraq is. If the United States can only hold together the international support for aggressive inspections for another year or two, we may find that we have squandered our one opportunity to remove the Iraqi regime from power without having delayed its acquisition of nuclear weapons significantly.


Assuming that Saddam does not act foolishly, but instead cooperates with the inspectors without complying with disarmament, as seems likely, the question for the United States will be whether President Bush is determined to go to war or wants to try to one last time to make inspections work.

If the Administration truly is willing to play out the inspections, the resolution provides all of the political cover that it will need. The challenge then will be to turn Iraqi cooperation into true compliance. The only realistic way to do this is to maintain tremendous military and political pressure on Iraq and to refuse to be diverted by other issues for the years that will be required to disarm Iraq.

If, on the other hand, the Administration is determined to go to war, the resolution provides the necessary practical basis (because it does not require the U.S. to get a second Security Council vote and sets a very low threshold for Iraq to be in material breach) but will make it politically difficult. Because Iraq is unlikely to give us a clear pretext for war by blatantly obstructing inspections, it is unlikely that the United States will be able to build the same kind of broad international coalition for war that we had in 1991. Consequently, the Administration will have to get to work immediately to build a case employing more ambiguous evidence and diplomatic horse-trading to convince other countries to support an invasion without such a clear provocation.

The place to start will be with Iraq’s initial declaration regarding its WMD programs, which is due to the UN by December 8. Iraq’s recent statements—including its letter to the UN accepting the new Resolution—indicate that it intends to claim that it is completely disarmed. If Iraq continues with this approach, it is likely to declare little or no WMD capability, in effect, daring the inspectors to prove Baghdad is lying, which it appears confident they will again fail to do. This is likely to be the most blatant Iraqi non-compliance Washington will see for some time, probably until Saddam feels comfortable that an invasion has become untenable. On the other hand, if the Bush Administration allows the inspections to go forward, it will lose the opportunity to use Baghdad’s initial declaration as a casus belli and if the inspectors fail to find the goods, as they likely will, the Administration’s credibility will be thrown in doubt rather than Saddam’s. And that will make it all the more difficult to forge a coalition for war. Absent an unequivocal provocation from Iraq, proceeding on a war course could then cost the Administration the very diplomatic support it sought to build by taking its case to the United Nations in the first place.