How Bush Can Avoid the Inspections Trap

Kenneth M Pollack and
Kenneth M Pollack Former Brookings Expert, Resident Scholar - AEI
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations

January 27, 2003

As if the Iraq problem were not difficult enough, today Hans Blix, the head of the United Nations inspection team, will deliver his official report to the Security Council. Now the United States is firmly stuck in the “inspections trap,” and our French and German allies appear determined to keep us there. Paris and Berlin, along with their fellow travelers in Moscow and Beijing, are likely to seize on Mr. Blix’s report to insist on delaying any military operation to enforce Iraq’s disarmament.

Here is how the inspections trap plays out: the United States mobilizes for war; Saddam Hussein realizes that he’s about to go down; he runs up what looks like a white flag; and the United Nations Security Council members argue that the world should “give inspections a chance.” It happened exactly that way in November 1998. And it’s happening again now.

In 1998, after a year of Iraq’s “cheat and retreat” antics, the Security Council had given up; the expulsion of the United Nations weapons inspectors had been the last straw. Iraq’s Arab neighbors finally got up the courage to back the United States, declaring that the dictator alone would be responsible for the consequences of his actions. The United Nations condemned Iraq’s noncompliance. President Bill Clinton ordered a first salvo of punitive air strikes and cruise missile attacks.

Then Saddam Hussein suddenly proclaimed that the inspectors would be allowed back into Iraq. And the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, said inspections should be given another chance. With minutes to go before the bombs were unleashed, President Clinton suspended the strike.

Mr. Clinton subsequently defined the problem to his advisers in the following terms: First, Saddam Hussein is a liar but was also clever enough to make himself look like less of a liar. Second, the Arabs want us to hit Iraq regardless of whether he accepts inspections. But third, in order to get support for our use of force, we told our Western allies that we wanted the weapons inspectors to go back in. So, Mr. Clinton said, if we bomb we’ll be fine with the Arabs but in the dock internationally, and if we don’t bomb we’ll lose the Arabs.

Four years later, President Bush is now confronted with similar circumstances, but the stakes are even higher. With some 150,000 troops heading to the region, and with Iraq’s Arab neighbors and Turkey finally falling in with most of our requests for access to their bases, Saddam Hussein again understands that his survival is at stake. But he also believes that by feigning cooperation he can convince the Europeans to delay American military action long enough to prevent it altogether.

He has already told an Egyptian newspaper that he simply needs to play for time. To this end, Iraq seized on Mr. Blix’s visit this month to announce that it will allow the inspectors to open a new field office; Iraq will produce a few more documents; it will “encourage” scientists to be interviewed in private rather than in the presence of Iraqi government minders; legislation will be enacted; it will even create its own inspection team to help the United Nations find its weapons of mass destruction.

If the situation weren’t so serious it would be laughable. Iraq tells us it will now do its own inspections to find what it has previously hidden? So now Saddam Hussein’s rubber stamp legislature can ban the development of weapons of mass destruction—a law that the security services, under the dictator’s son, will presumably then enforce. As for Iraqi scientists, the administration says it has evidence that the “encouragement” Iraq is using consists of threats to kill the families of any who talk.

Of course, with all this promised Iraqi “cooperation,” Hans Blix has already announced that he will give a more positive evaluation to the Security Council today. And France, Russia, China and Germany are not even waiting for the report. They’ve declared that inspections are working and should be given more time. With American public opinion polls showing that support for war drops substantially if the president does not have United Nations approval, Mr. Bush finds himself in the same position Bill Clinton faced in 1998.

President Bush cannot keep our forces in the Middle East indefinitely while Iraq constructs a disarmament trompe l’oeil. If he pulls back from war, however, it will be much harder for us to gain the cooperation of regional allies the next time we want to confront Iraq because they will not want to be caught out on a limb again. Yet if Mr. Bush presses ahead, he will have to do so without international approval and therefore with waning public support.

What’s the president to do?

First, he and his spokesmen must make clear that “cooperation” is not the same as compliance. Iraq’s mendacious 12,000-page initial declaration was proof that Saddam Hussein has no intention of taking the United Nations up on what the Security Council unanimously agreed was his last chance to avoid war. As he did throughout the 1990’s, he will give us cooperation without doing anything to comply with the demands of the Security Council to give up his weapons programs. And that is the only standard that counts.

The Bush administration should put much less emphasis on the weapons inspectors’ futile hunt for a “smoking gun.” Every inspection of an Iraqi site that finds nothing reinforces the misimpression that Iraq has complied. Moreover, as we experienced in the 1990’s, every time the inspectors did find smoking-gun evidence of Iraqi cheating—be it the information supplied by the defector Hussein Kamel al-Majid (Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law), the Russian missile gyroscopes that Iraq had imported after the Persian Gulf War, or the traces of VX nerve gas on Iraqi Scud warhead fragments—the Security Council still took no action to force Iraq to comply.

In addition, the administration should quickly share whatever intelligence it has with its allies in what Mr. Bush calls the “coalition of the willing,” so that these countries will understand we have good reason for using force to do what Saddam Hussein will not do and the inspectors cannot do. And it should immediately publish, even in sanitized form, the large amount of information we have already gained from earlier defections of Iraqi scientists, which was always the most valuable intelligence we could get our hands on.

Last, after Mr. Blix reports today that Iraq has not explained the yawning gaps in the November document that was supposed to have been its “full, final and complete” declaration, Washington should press the Security Council to give Iraq an ultimatum. It must be made to account for the thousands of tons of chemical precursors, the thousands of liters of biological warfare agents, the thousands of missing chemical munitions, the unaccounted-for Scuds missiles, and the weaponized VX poison that the United Nations has itself declared missing. If it does so, the inspectors can verify. If it does not do so, we will have a plausible justification for war.

Back in 1998, Bill Clinton called off the strikes only to call them forth again a month later, launching Operation Desert Fox after Richard Butler, then the chief United Nations inspector, reported to the Security Council that Iraq was neither cooperating nor complying. Today, with 150,000 troops flowing to the region, our regional allies much more exposed, and Hans Blix about to report Iraq’s “cooperation” to the Security Council, President Bush does not have the same maneuvering room. And it will grow even narrower the closer we come to war because Saddam Hussein undoubtedly has more mock cooperation tricks up his sleeve designed to play to the European Union-United Nations coalition of the unwilling.

With an iron will and some skillful diplomacy, President Bush can find a way out of this inspections trap. But he must do it quickly.