The Magazine

The U.N. Trap?

From the November 18, 2002 issue: What does the Iraq resolution really mean?

Nov 18, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 10 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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There is no point in kidding ourselves: The inspections process on which we are to embark is a trap. It may well be one that this powerful and determined president can get out of, but it is a trap nonetheless. It was designed to satisfy those in Europe who oppose U.S. military action against Iraq; and it was negotiated by those within the Bush administration who have never made any secret of their opposition to military action in Iraq. We should hardly be surprised, then, that the process established by the U.N. Security Council makes it harder, not easier, for the president to accomplish what he has long stated as his objective in Iraq. President Bush's own policy advisers have led him into an inspections quagmire from which he may have difficulty escaping.

Indeed, one of the most disturbing features of the current process is the extent to which it takes control of American foreign policy out of President Bush's hands and puts it in the hands of people who, to put it mildly, have no interest in furthering President Bush's goal of regime change in Iraq. As the plan is currently devised, the people who will have considerable influence in deciding whether the United States has legitimate grounds for taking action against Saddam Hussein are (1) the U.N.'s chief arms inspector, Hans Blix, (2) the members of the U.N. Security Council, i.e., France and Russia, and (3) Saddam Hussein himself.

FIRST HANS BLIX. No one should judge him before he has had a chance to prove himself. But it is well known that he was given the job of chief U.N. inspector in part as a concession to Saddam Hussein, who considered the previous chief inspector, Richard Butler, too tough, and that Blix's team was modified to make it less potent than Butler's.

Now President Bush's policy rests heavily on Blix's actions and decisions. According to the resolution passed on Friday, Blix will have 45 days to begin inspections in Iraq. Then he will have another 60 days to submit a report on his findings to the U.N. Security Council. During these 105 days he may also report on any efforts by Iraq to obstruct inspections. Now, of course, it is possible that Blix will report every breach or obstruction committed by Iraq, that he will file a complaint every time his access to some building is delayed by 24 hours, or every time one of his vehicles gets a flat tire, or every time one of the people he wants to interview mysteriously fails to show up. But, really, what are the chances that Mr. Blix will want to blow the whistle on Saddam--knowing that he may thereby signal the start of a war that he and his backers at the Security Council want to avoid? More likely he will doggedly persist in his work and try to overcome whatever obstacles Saddam's people place in his path. It's only natural: What U.N. diplomat wants to be responsible for starting a war over a few nagging inconveniences of the kind that Saddam has turned into an art form? Nor should we expect Mr. Blix at the end of 105 days to provide the kind of report that will make a clear case for going to war. Most likely, it will be a report filled with ambiguity and uncertainty, with reasons for concern and reasons for optimism. And inevitably the report will include an appeal for more time to keep looking. After all, years of inspections in the past produced only hunches and ambiguities and warnings about Iraq's weapons programs. Why should we expect a mere 105 days of inspections to produce much greater clarity?

Now it would be one thing if President Bush were able, whenever he learned of some Iraqi obstruction, to declare that the jig is up and order American troops to start moving. It would be one thing if, whenever a door were slammed in Blix's face, Bush could simply begin the invasion on his own initiative. And it would be one thing if Bush, upon reading Blix's 105-day report, decided that, ambiguity or no ambiguity, it was time for military action. But here is where American negotiators seem to have made a substantial concession to France and Russia in the Security Council negotiations last week.