A lessening risk

January 17, 2003

LET'S SAY, just for the sake of argument, that Iraq does indeed possess chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, or at least has a program to make them. The hawks in the Bush administration are convinced that that is the case, and it would come as no great shock to learn that they're right.

Yesterday, in fact, United Nations inspectors found empty warheads designed for chemical weapons - which hardly amounts to a smoking gun but does add a little more circumstantial evidence to the dossier.

The question now is what to do about it.

Hans Blix, head of the inspection team, is to make a report to the U.N. Security Council on Jan. 27. He is expected to declare that nothing definitive has been found, but that Iraq has not been entirely cooperative. He proposes to lay out what Iraq must do to comply, within a 60-day deadline that arises from a 4-year-old Security Council resolution.

Russia and France, two of the veto-wielding members of the council, like that idea. The White House is having fits.

The way Ari Fleischer describes how his boss is getting "sick and tired" of Iraqi games, how his patience is wearing thin, it makes it sound as though George W. Bush is a petulant little man stamping his foot. We know that can't be accurate, because of the diplomatic way the president is dealing with North Korea, which is being infinitely more provocative than Iraq at the moment.

But the administration's attitude seems to be that whatever might happen in Iraq before a deadline is now fairly irrelevant, and the only thing that matters is what happens after - which is that the United States goes to war. So enough already with the deadlines.

We think that's wrong. Here's why:

If the inspectors stay in Iraq, and keep working and keep working, and keep adding to their number, it becomes more and more unlikely that Saddam Hussein could actually get away with much. This is what Mr. Blix has in mind. He talks about the inspectors as a means of containing Mr. Hussein.

That's a change in their mission, but not necessarily a bad one. The Bush administration worries that this would mean eventually letting Mr. Hussein off the hook entirely. But given a sufficient and determined attention span on Washington's part, that doesn't have to be the case.

If, alternatively, the inspectors stay in Iraq and find unequivocally damning evidence, then the United States could go to war and few nations would object. This is what Tony Blair, the British prime minister, has in mind. Mr. Blair has provided Mr. Bush with the illusion of an international coalition against Iraq, but British public opinion is extremely wary of war absent such hard evidence. The tough questions are: What bargaining power does London now have with Mr. Bush? And will Mr. Blair choose to exercise it?

The point is this: Assuming Saddam Hussein to be guilty does not require a rush to war. Precipitate action invites disaster. Time, we would argue, is on America's side.

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