Bush's gamble on inspections looks like a bad bet

January 14, 2003|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - Maybe that war with Iraq is not going to happen after all. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw of Britain, our closest ally, said last week that the odds are now 60 percent against an invasion. What looked inevitable now looks a bit in doubt.

The reasons are twofold: Iraq has been cooperating with U.N. weapons inspectors, and they apparently haven't found anything. This is not how things were supposed to play out. If you want a pretext for war, as President Bush does, no news is bad news.

These developments certainly won't convince him that Saddam Hussein is no longer a menace. But it leaves Mr. Bush with a painful dilemma. Having committed to work through the U.N., he finds himself enmeshed in a process that is obstructing his war plans, not facilitating them.

The problem for the United States is that the inspectors have yet to unearth any weapons of mass destruction.

"If our goal is to catch them with their pants down, we are definitely losing," one member of the inspection team told The Los Angeles Times recently. "I must say that if we were to publish a report now, we would have zilch to put in it."

Maybe the inspectors are being coy and will actually cart in reams of evidence documenting Mr. Hussein's guilt. But so far, he's managed to look as angelic as a 5-year-old on Christmas Eve. If the arms monitors provide nothing damning, the other members of the Security Council aren't likely to endorse an attack.

They made that clear in the resolution they passed in November. It says the Security Council will authorize war only if two separate conditions are met - if Iraq withholds information about its armaments and if it impedes inspection. Iraq may have lied in its December report on its weapons of mass destruction, but as long as it allows the inspectors to do their work, it's not in "material breach" of the resolution.

Mr. Straw explained his optimism: "What we've had is an agreement by the international community, 15-0 in the Security Council, to put inspectors back in and accept the authority of the international community. Now if that can continue in that way, then the matter can be resolved peacefully." The attitude of the British government, even as it sends troops to the Persian Gulf, is simple: no interference with the inspectors means no war.

The administration didn't want the two-trigger rule, but it did want the U.N. imprimatur. So it had to swallow the compromise. The president was betting that sooner or later, Mr. Hussein would block the inspectors, or else that they'd find the forbidden weapons. Either way, the Security Council would have to bless a U.S. invasion.

But Mr. Hussein has done something shocking: He's behaved himself. Instead of harassing and impeding the inspectors, he's been the most indulgent host this side of Hugh Hefner. As long as he cooperates, and as long as the inspectors find nothing, the United States can't go to war without spurning the same Security Council members it worked so hard to enlist.

Not only that, but the administration would have to justify going to war to punish Mr. Hussein for transgressions that no one has been able to prove. To the rest of the world, Mr. Bush would be in the position of holding a trial and then hanging the defendant after his acquittal.

So Mr. Bush may have to let the inspection process drag out in the hope that it will eventually produce the goods. Colin Powell says that could take months. Rolf Ekeus, who headed the U.N. inspection team in Iraq until 1997, says it could take years.

Some conservatives saw this coming. "President Bush's own policy advisers have led him into an inspections quagmire from which he will have difficulty escaping," warned William Kristol and Robert Kagan in The Weekly Standard in November. "There is no way for the United States to make an independent judgment without being accused of subverting a process the United States appears to have authorized."

There is always the possibility that Mr. Hussein will revert to form and block the inspectors, or maybe they'll unearth a large pile of smoking guns. Or maybe the administration will decide to turn its back on the United Nations and invade Iraq on its own.

But at the moment, Mr. Bush finds himself groping for a way out of the corner into which he painted himself. There are lots of convincing reasons for starting a war. "Zilch" is not one of them.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays in The Sun.

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