NEW ORLEANS — PRESIDENT BUSH sent his secretary of state to inform our allies that a military strike at Saddam Hussein has been postponed until a period "between Christmas and Ramadan" -- late January is now the best guess, when the U.S. military's last kitchen sink is in place in Saudi Arabia.
As the moment of decision approaches, however, the Iraqi leader is likely to launch a peace offensive. He may offer to meet the visiting President Bush in Cairo late this month, for example, or to dispatch his Jordanian puppet to Paris with an offer to discuss withdrawal from Kuwait (which President Mitterrand would leap at). This would be a rehash of the phony Iraqi proposal that everyone withdraw from everywhere.
Why does Saddam Hussein play for time this way -- bringing in a parade of political palookas and has-beens from Jesse Jackson and Kurt Waldheim to Ted Heath and assorted German and Japanese rejects -- trickling out some hostages as he rounds up replacements?
The reason is that every month Iraq goes unbombed brings it a step closer to production of nuclear weapons. Once he gets his Saddam bomb, no land force no matter how powerful would dare invade; and as his Tammuz missile is perfected, he can impose nuclear blackmail on the superpowers.
Oh, but that's years away, says the burgeoning appeasement movement. Maybe he'll get religion, or get overthrown, or die of natural causes between now and then; besides, Arabs are not scientists -- the West will refuse to help and he'll never build the bomb.
Let's throw a couple of unrevealed facts at that racist notion.
At the airport in Frankfurt just three weeks before the invasion of Kuwait, German Customs inspected a curious shipment of a thousand metal parts on its way from Switzerland to Iraq. German technicians were called in and tested the metal: it was a strategic material known as "350-grade maraging steel," its exportation controlled because the high tensile strength alloy is used in high-speed gas centrifuges.
German police, sensitive to charges in the press that past laxity had led to Iraqi and Libyan poison-gas production, impounded the shipment and tipped off high-level officials in Switzerland.
Swiss authorities realized that their Customs inspectors had been either incredibly naive or had been corrupted. Three weeks later, just after Iraqi forces swept into Kuwait, Swiss police raided a production facility a half-hour's drive from Bern.
Five computer-controlled lathes were found there, being readied for shipment to Iraq under the guise of optical machinery, along with 30 centrifuge parts similar to those seized in Frankfurt.
What's the big deal about high-tech parts? Ask any atomic scientist: this means that Iraq is now, today, in the business of producing gas centrifuges on its own. With the first few thousand off the line, a "cascade" can be set up to separate U-235 from uranium in a gaseous state. Each cascade can turn out 50 pounds of weapons-grade uranium -- enough for a city-destroying atom bomb -- every three months.
The point in all this technical stuff is that Saddam Hussein has achieved the ability to make his own arsenal without more outside help. We could keep on an airtight embargo, or we could cut a deal that includes his heartfelt promise to let us inspect civilian reactors; neither strategy would stop him from building bombs at secret sites.
Under a sense of urgency even greater than at our World War II "Manhattan Project," Iraqis working by themselves will produce deliverable bombs much sooner than our complacent analysts predict.
Look: It's always possible that my information is all wet. Or perhaps another Al Qaqaa explosion, the investigation of which cost the reporter Farzad Bazoft his life, will set back bomb production. Or maybe a coup or heart attack or mid-life crisis will remove the Saddam threat. All are long-shot possibilities -- but are we willing to bet the world on them?
We face a dictator who has caused a million casualties, created a million refugees, re-introduced the horror of poison gas and kidnaps civilians for use as human shields. He has demonstrated he will stop at nothing to extend his rule.
zTC All he needs is time. And with each passing month, with each escalation of preparation, with each excuse for diplomatic delay -- time is exactly what we're giving him.