There is little in President George W. Bush’s speech last night that Iraq cannot live with. Much of it was overblown hyperbole about the dangers posed by Baghdad -- but all of those dangers are speculations that can be dissolved in the first days of UN inspections. As far as I can tell, there were no “deal breakers” demanded by the President that would prevent the UN Security Council from writing a new resolution fixing the conditions of the inspections. That would have been the case if he had insisted that a U.S. military force accompany the inspectors to make sure they are not barred from looking wherever they wished. It should be enough for the President to pull the war trigger from Washington if Iraq violates the terms of the inspections as set out by Hans Blix and the UNMOVIC team. The Bush speech was widely seen as postponing “regime change” if Iraq disarms, but there was still enough in the speech to suggest Mr. Bush would prefer that diplomacy breaks down so he can dispatch American legions. The UN resolution yet to be drafted will make that clear, with Wall Street today still expecting the worst.
The President made much of photographs showing new building construction where old WMD facilities were demolished during the UNSCOM regime of Rolf Ekeus (1991-97) and Richard Butler (1998). As with British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “Dossier,” these “revelations” by the President only argue for the return of inspectors, not war. As an example, the President said: “We’ve also discovered through intelligence that Iraq has a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas.” When asked about these recently, Scott Ritter said the CIA knows these vehicles had not been modified as of 1998 to disperse chem/bio. UNSCOM did check them and found no evidence they were being used for anything but air defense drones. Perhaps they have been modified since 1998, says Ritter: “This is one of the things that could be readily cleared up once we got inspectors back inside Iraq.”
The one demand made by the President last night that might cause real difficulties at the Security Council was his insistence that Iraq permit “witnesses to its illegal activities to be interviewed outside the country. And these witnesses must be free to bring their families with them so they are all beyond the reach of Saddam’s terror and murder.” In the past, the war advocates in the administration have argued that inspectors be permitted to question Iraqi scientists without an Iraqi diplomat being present. In 1998, though, the inspections regime was tightened to permit these interviews and Iraq has said they could continue under UNMOVIC. The idea of UNMOVIC reaching into the general population for “witnesses to [Iraq’s] illegal activities” and transporting them and their families outside the country seems to have nothing at all to do with weapons inspections and everything to do with setting up a provocation that will trigger a war. The anti-war advocates we track on the Internet identify it as a booby trap, and it can hardly be anything else.
In 1998, Iraq agreed to permit inspectors into the presidential palaces or any other “sensitive” sites on modalities worked out by the Security Council. The inspectors would have to announce their intent and Iraq would be required to permit entry of four inspectors who would be accompanied by a diplomat. According to Scott Ritter, who was still chief American inspector, there were reports of machinery in several crates being stored in the headquarters of the Ba’ath Party in Baghdad, a “sensitive” site. According to Ritter, Butler was asked by the U.S. to demand a much bigger team be permitted inside. The Iraqis compromised on six, and they came out after finding nothing: “Still the chief inspector, under orders from Butler, demanded a much larger team be given access. The Iraqis responded that only under the Sensitive Site modalities would they allow a team back in. The inspectors withdrew and reported to Richard Butler. Butler cited this as an egregious example of the Security Council Mandate.”
This kind of history is what bothers the rest of the world as it watches the maneuvering in Washington. How much will President Bush agree to do in the interests of exhausting diplomacy before he finds an excuse to pull the trigger? He needs the Senate to pass stiff resolutions of support for the use of force and knows he can easily get all he wants out of the House. Thus, when it seemed likely that a draft bipartisan resolution of the Chairman and ranking Republican of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would give Bush less than what he wanted, he called the Republican, Richard Lugar, and talked him into shelving his draft, which left the chairman, Democrat Joseph Biden, high and dry. The move by Bush was seen as a “softening” of his stand on “regime change,” but it is also possible that he simply promised Lugar a genuine diplomatic effort with no real intent to follow through. The President can always claim force majeure in telling the Lugars of Congress how he had to break his word for the good of the country. Once he has the Senate resolution in hand, this week or next, he can go to the Security Council with demands that are “deal breakers.”
My continued optimism that UNMOVIC inspectors will soon be back and finding nothing to worry about is based on the judgment that the GOP War Party has already lost its chance to “thwart” the return of the inspections. That became clear once Baghdad was willing to permit total access to inspections, which the Pentagon chessplayers doubted would happen. The American electorate will have that in mind as it observes the options open to the President and the government. If the White House goes to the Security Council in bad faith, demanding unreasonable conditions, the President’s support would reflect a change in his standing with the people. As it is, while he is far more hawkish than I believe conditions warrant, there is now an encouraging sense of balance.