As the Bush administration considers how to proceed on Iraq, it has to confront a growing contradiction in its public pronouncements. For months, President Bush has insisted that Baghdad allow United Nations inspectors complete and unfettered access to sites where they suspect weapons are being stored or produced. At the same time, American officials have made clear that Mr. Hussein’s regime represents an unacceptable threat that must be removed, by force if necessary.
But what if Mr. Hussein lets United Nations inspectors back in and gives them complete access? Would the administration still insist on his removal? Yes, according to Secretary of State Colin Powell. “Even then,” he told CNN last month, “the United States believes the Iraqi people would still be better off with a new kind of leadership that is not trying to hide this sort of development activity on weapons of mass destruction and is not of the despotic nature that the Saddam Hussein regime is.” Recently, President Bush was even more direct in putting the focus on Saddam Hussein himself, rather than on his weapons. “He is a problem,” Mr. Bush said, “and we’re going to deal with him.”
The administration’s drumbeat on inspections appears better calculated to build international support for military action than to persuade Iraq to allow inspections.
Iraq has failed to live up to the 1991 Persian Gulf war cease-fire resolution, which required that it “unconditionally accept the destruction, removal or rendering harmless” of its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and its facilities for producing them, as well as ballistic missiles with ranges over 150 kilometers. To ensure Baghdad’s compliance, United Nations experts were to inspect any location they chose and institute a long-term monitoring regime.
For more than three years, there have been no United Nations inspectors in Iraq, and Baghdad appears determined to keep them out. From the Bush administration’s perspective, Iraq’s refusal to accept what Vice President Dick Cheney calls a “go anywhere, any time kind of inspection regime” provides a legitimate rationale for military action aimed at toppling Saddam Hussein.
But what if Mr. Hussein finally decides to comply fully with his disarmament obligations? The administration and its supporters dismiss this possibility. Even in the unlikely event that Mr. Hussein allowed inspectors, they say, he would repeat the kind of cat-and-mouse games he played when they were in Iraq before.
But the Bush administration may be underestimating the credibility of its own threats. Faced with a clear choice between getting rid of his weapons and being gotten rid of himself, Saddam Hussein might well decide to give in and open Iraq to inspections.
To save his own neck he will have to allow immediate and unrestricted access to all sites—even if they are palaces or mosques—that are believed to be linked to weapons development programs, with no negotiations. The makeup of the inspection teams must be determined by the United Nations in New York, not by Baghdad. The United Nations must be able to remove or destroy any weapons and weapons materials that inspectors find. And there must be ongoing monitoring of all sites that could be used to build more weapons.
Even a robust inspection and monitoring regime might not keep Iraq from attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction. It would, however, make such efforts much more difficult, costly and risky. And of course, evidence of Iraqi noncompliance when inspection begins again would be cause for using force against the Baghdad regime.
The United States is more likely to gain broad support for military action against Iraq if it makes clear that Mr. Hussein has been given a final chance to allow meaningful inspections. Without weapons and under permanent international monitoring, Saddam Hussein would be a major nuisance, but not the threat he is today. That is why if he agrees, the United States should be willing to take yes for an answer.