Iraq offer is a break for Bush

September 18, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Iraq's turnabout agreement to accept U.N. inspectors seeking weapons of mass destruction at least temporarily puts the brakes on President Bush's pursuit of swift U.N. and congressional authorization for military action.

Despite the White House skepticism and derision that the offer is only another Saddam Hussein stall, the agreement can benefit the president in the long run, whether such inspections actually take place or yield anything.

If the inspections should discover and bring about the destruction of such weapons, the president's threat of military action will have paid off by mobilizing much of the world community, and particularly much of the Arab world, to pressure Mr. Hussein to open his doors.

Even if, as the White House has said, the agreement proves to be no more than "a tactic that will fail," Mr. Bush will have more justification thereafter for demanding U.N. approval of the military option.

The Bush administration no doubt will note that even with the proffered Iraqi agreement to accept the inspectors "without conditions," it will take weeks or months to get them on the ground with their technical surveillance equipment. That, it will be argued, will give Iraq more time to hide whatever weapons it has or to put them into operational status, raising the risk to potential targets.

But Mr. Bush would be in a stronger position to make this case if he would provide much more information to the United Nations and to Congress about the status of the Iraqi arsenal and its development. Failure to do so has made doubts about the urgency of moving against Iraq perhaps the most telling inhibition to wider acceptance of the Bush demand for military action now.

In terms of diplomacy, the Iraqi offer does make it harder for the Bush administration to detour a reported French proposal for a two-resolution approach - a first one authorizing the return of the inspectors and a finite period for inspections, and the second specifying the consequences to the Iraqis if they fail to comply. The United States wants only one resolution approving military action in the absence of timely compliance.

For the time being, the Iraqi offer also complicates the Bush administration's goal of "regime change." The president did not mention anything in his U.N. speech last week about ousting Mr. Hussein. But it remains part of his position that real disarmament and compliance with other ignored U.N. resolutions cannot take place with the Iraqi dictator on the scene.

It's clear that many other members of the world body are at best uncomfortable with the notion of the United Nations taking it upon itself to remove a national leader. Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, in his letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan agreeing to the return of inspectors, played on that sentiment by insisting that the United Nations respect the "sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of Iraq."

The Iraqi turnabout on inspections also is likely to make it harder for Mr. Bush to goad Democratic leaders in Congress into agreeing to a quick vote on a war-making resolution in Congress and, as he did last week, to chide them as taking a back seat to the United Nations if they hold off.

Many rank-and-file Democratic members have seemed ready to go along with such a vote before the November congressional elections rather than risking being painted as bucking the popular Republican president. But Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has declined to be rushed and says he wants true collaboration with the White House on writing any Iraq resolution. The Iraqi agreement gives him more reason to take his time.

Although Mr. Bush, in his U.N. speech, sought to broaden the complaint against Mr. Hussein well beyond the disarmament issue, enumerating other past breaches in his promises of good conduct, eradicating the threat of weapons of mass destruction remains at the core of any hope for concerted U.N. action. The president risked walking alone in seeking to sidestep one more try at fruitful inspections. In that sense, the Iraqi offer can save him from himself.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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