Can United Nations weapons inspectors, now poised to return to Iraq in the coming weeks, really ensure the disarmament of Saddam Hussein’s regime? We cannot yet know how well the process will play out; much depends on how much Mr Hussein wants to save his own neck. But it is wrong to dismiss the possibility that inspections can succeed.
To begin with, this is the first time in a decade that the US-British threat to go to war against Iraq is credible. After the end of the first Gulf war in 1991, the administration of George Bush Sr was so anxious to declare complete victory that it stood aside as the Iraqi regime slaughtered thousands of insurgents. It was a shameful decision consistent with the cynicism of the west’s policy on Iraq of the previous 10 years. It is hardly surprising, after those events, that Mr Hussein began to realise he could bend the restrictions placed upon him under the ceasefire.
During the Clinton administration, Baghdad’s transgressions were met with little more than cruise missile strikes and short air raids, even when the Iraqi leader attempted to assassinate the former President Bush in 1993 or obstructed weapons inspections.
Today, there can be little doubt about the willingness of the second Bush administration to go to war at the first serious provocation. Many people around the world see this situation as the failure of a unilateralist US administration predisposed towards war. But throughout the autumn the hawks have consistently lost the administration’s internal debates on Iraq policy to Colin Powell, secretary of state.
Moreover, the Bush administration as a whole has conveyed a seriousness of purpose and a stomach for war that even Mr Hussein must have noticed. The recent votes of the US Congress and the UN Security Council have strengthened this impression, even if the Bush administration was obliged to narrow the casus belli to Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
Yet hardliners fear that Mr Hussein could still hide enough weapons of mass destruction to remain a threat. History suggests the fear is warranted.
There are two main responses to this worry. First, not all weapons pose the same threat. Preventing Iraq from obtaining a nuclear weapon should be our priority. Mr Hussein has possessed chemical and biological agents for a couple of decades but has not dared used them since the late 1980s. Nor is there any evidence that he has transferred such agents to al-Qaeda, a group that he cannot control or aid without running a high risk of being caught—and then overthrown. With nuclear weapons, by contrast, Mr Hussein might be emboldened to attack his neighbours or internal minorities, believing his arsenal protected him from an American-led reprisal.
Fortunately for us, nuclear weapons programmes are hard to hide from inspectors. Iraq was unable to sustain a substantial nuclear effort during the 1990s. It may have retained some documents for its nuclear programme and some of the non-fissile technologies needed to build a bomb. But the hardest task in constructing such a device is not figuring out the basic design—which is within the capabilities of a Princeton undergraduate. It is enriching uranium or producing, and then separating, plutonium.
Unless the Iraqi leader manages to acquire such materials from abroad—a rather unlikely prospect but one that could be made even less likely by closer US-Russian co-operation—he will have a hard time producing them with inspectors present. The necessary infrastructure is expensive, sophisticated, hard to hide and even harder to move. It would include thousands of finely machined centrifuges or large electromagnetic separators. These facilities are a far cry from the small, highly mobile laboratories used to produce chemical or biological agents.
Second, inspectors now have new tools that will help them find all types of illicit materials. They will be equipped with the latest detection devices. Most important, they will have assured private access to Iraqi weapons scientists, possibly interviewing them outside the country. That approach, combined with the granting of asylum to scientists and their families, will help the inspectors to find secret facilities.
There is good reason to be optimistic that inspections can eliminate much of Saddam’s chemical and biological capabilities and, most important, prevent him from obtaining the bomb.