Clash of symbols

February 25, 2003

SATURDAY IS shaping up to be a crucial moment in the Iraq affair. The chief United Nations weapons inspector, Hans Blix, has told Saddam Hussein to destroy his Al Samoud 2 missiles by then. If the Iraqi leader refuses, he'll be handing President Bush an excuse to go to war. If he complies, he'll be making things a lot more difficult for the White House -- a lot. If he weasels -- then the maneuvering continues.

It's important to understand that these missiles -- which are forbidden to Baghdad because of their range -- have some military significance but are rapidly taking on a purely symbolic role. Whatever Iraq decides to do about them, it won't have much effect on the actual strength of its armed forces. What matters now is perception. Is Baghdad going to make a show of cooperation, or will it make a show of defiance?

This is what the world has come to: lines drawn in the sand. War in Iraq could hinge on the fate of 100 or so missiles that fly too far. They could become a stand-in for everything the White House doesn't like about Saddam Hussein's regime -- "the tip of the iceberg," as Mr. Bush himself put it.

Iraqi intransigence would make it very difficult for doubters in the United Nations to continue their opposition to a war

There's a trap here, though, and the White House is well aware of it. Mr. Blix's order to destroy the missiles was so unequivocal, and the support on the Security Council for that order is so strong, even among the French, that it seems very likely that the Iraqis will indulge in some weaving and dodging and then comply. Where does that leave the United States? Trying to mount a war against a nation that appears to all the rest of the world to be giving in.

Yesterday the United States, Britain and Spain introduced a resolution in the United Nations that is designed to set the stage for a military attack on Iraq -- but a vote on that resolution won't happen until sometime in March. It is quite clear that between now and then the White House will be doing everything in its power to minimize the significance of the missiles.

But this is where the inability to find any actual weapons of mass destruction in Iraq will begin to stand out in sharp relief. The missiles -- which were discovered -- won't count. The biological and chemical and nuclear weapons -- which haven't been discovered -- will be used by the White House to justify a war. There's a logical problem with that, and everyone will see it.

Symbolism works both ways, and the United States may be about to get boxed in.

It's an interesting twist, isn't it? The U.N. inspectors finally found hard evidence of a violation of a Security Council resolution (the missiles) and it turns out the Bush administration is now trying to play down their importance, for fear of Iraqi compliance. What kind of a looking-glass war is this going to be, anyway?

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