A false choice on Iraq

January 28, 2003

IRAQ - SURPRISE, surprise - is not cooperating. The chief U.N. weapons inspector delivered his long-awaited report yesterday, and said that Saddam Hussein's regime was not coming clean on questions of disarmament and in fact does not appear to have accepted the idea that the country should disarm.

Does this mean war?

The White House is all but saying so - in that more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger sort of tone that the self-righteous like to adopt. But we would argue that it's the wrong question.

Let's review what has happened so far:

The inspectors went into Iraq and got to work there two months ago. Most people thought their job was to find weapons of mass destruction; so far they haven't. Now the Bush administration is telling us that the inspectors' real job was to test Iraqi cooperation - a test that the Iraqis have already failed.

The inspectors say they need more time. Sorry, time's up, says the White House.

Suddenly, everyone around George Bush is pointing to South Africa, Ukraine and Kazakhstan as countries that gave up nuclear weapons in the 1990s and did so in a spirit of genuine cooperation. And then look at Iraq, they say, still trying to play at games.

But that's a parallel that just doesn't go very far. Those three countries wanted to give up their nuclear programs. Iraq, quite obviously, does not. The report delivered yesterday by Hans Blix, the chief inspector, does confirm that fact.

It would be foolish to ignore it. Clearly, the time has come to increase the pressure on Iraq. But that doesn't mean the time has come to send in the Marines.

The choice is not between an anemic inspection program or all-out war. There are any number of steps the Bush administration could still take to tighten the vise on Mr. Hussein: More inspectors - lots more. More pressure on Mr. Hussein's Arab neighbors to use their contacts in Iraq to promote his ouster. An ultimatum demanding specific answers to specific questions about weapons components that the United States knows they have.

War, as the saying goes, is a continuation of diplomacy by other means. So far, the Bush administration's diplomacy on Iraq has been a spectacular failure, as one ally after another jumps ship. That doesn't hold out much promise for the war to come.

Mr. Hussein's thumbing of his nose at the U.N. inspectors means it's all the more important for the United States to step up its diplomatic efforts, to make a persuasive case for action to the rest of the world and to win back its allies. Instead, President Bush's aides spent the weekend threatening a nuclear attack. That's pure insanity.

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