WEST CORNWALL, Conn. - Now that United Nations weapons inspectors have arrived in Iraq, most Americans want the inspection process to work. But the hawks in the Bush administration are petrified that it will, and doing their best to undermine it.
As recently as Nov. 21, Richard Perle, a top Pentagon adviser and No. 1 cheerleader for war in Iraq, told a group of astonished British parliamentarians that even a "clean bill of health" from U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix would not preclude a war.
Former British Defense Minister Peter Kilfoyle said Mr. Perle's remarks make clear that "America is duping the world into believing it supports these inspections. President Bush intends to go to war even if inspectors find nothing. This makes a mockery of the whole process and exposes America's real determination to bomb Iraq."
In a thinly disguised attempt to smear the inspectors and the inspection process, staff members for Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have been conducting what the British newspaper The Guardian calls a "whispering campaign" against Mr. Blix. As the inspectors prepared to enter Iraq, Mr. Perle declared, "On the strength of his previous record, I wouldn't have chosen Hans Blix." Mr. Blix snapped back that such accusations are "certainly unhelpful." No doubt they are meant to be just that.
The Bush administration is also refusing to make its intelligence information on Iraq's weapons programs available to the U.N. inspectors until after Sunday, when the Iraqis are to submit a report on their weapons programs. The obvious reason is to play a game of "gotcha" so the administration can claim that Mr. Blix has been taken in by the Iraqis.
Our U.N. allies justly fear that the Bush administration is looking for any pretext to justify an attack. This led U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, after meeting with President Bush, to observe that the United States seems "to have a lower threshold" than the rest of the world for what would trigger a war and to warn against a "flimsy or hasty excuse to go to war."
Even as inspectors arrived in Iraq, the United States began trumping up such a "flimsy or hasty excuse." In an obvious provocation, U.S. and British planes bombed Iraq. When Iraqi forces returned the fire, a White House spokesman said, "The United States believes that firing upon our aircraft in the no-fly zone or British aircraft is a violation. It is a material breach." The United States maintains that such a "material breach" is an adequate justification for war.
In an unusual rebuke to Washington, Mr. Annan replied, "I don't think the council will say this is in contravention of the resolution of the Security Council." No other Security Council member, not even Britain, supported the U.S. position.
Yet the Bush administration continues to accelerate its war mobilization, moving vast amounts of war materiel into the region and quietly calling up reserves. It is still claiming the right to dictate "regime change" in Iraq, even though the Security Council recognizes no such right.
Good generals and diplomats leave their opponents an escape route. The United Nations has laid out an easy line of retreat from a potentially disastrous war for President Bush. The script is simply for Mr. Bush to announce that inspections have worked and that it was his threats that forced Saddam Hussein to allow inspections and accept disarmament. Opponents of war in Iraq need not endorse the hypocrisy of such a claim to recognize it as a victory.
But when Mr. Annan visited Washington to do what an aide called "missionary work," he admonished, "We need to be patient and give the inspectors time and space to do their work." Going to war on a flimsy pretext, Mr. Annan pointed out, would draw opposition not only from Security Council members but also from ordinary Americans who have expressed a desire for Mr. Bush to work with the United Nations in confronting Iraq.
By so flagrantly sabotaging the inspection process, the Bush administration is not only courting political isolation abroad, it is giving ordinary Americans another good reason for opposing its march toward war.
Jeremy Brecher is a historian and the author of 12 books, including Globalization From Below (South End Press, 2000), and a political commentator for Foreign Policy in Focus in Washington.