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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Earlier American drafts had stated simply that if Iraq obstructed inspections or made false declarations, it would be in "material breach" of the U.N. resolution, thus implicitly leaving the United States free to take action. But in recent weeks France and Russia fought hard against this "hidden trigger"--precisely because, as the Associated Press reports, "the original wording would have let the United States determine on its own whether Iraq had committed an infraction." Last week the State Department negotiators backed down on this critical point. At France's insistence, the resolution now states that any new breach "will be reported to the Council for assessment." If Blix encounters trouble with the Iraqis, he is to report to the council, which will then "convene immediately to consider the situation." This is not a mere technicality. The French believe, and more important the British believe, that this means President Bush has promised he will not order an invasion just because it is clear to him that Saddam is obstructing inspections or lying and cheating. Their interpretation of the resolution is that the president can act only when Blix declares to the Security Council that there is a problem. As one British diplomat at the U.N. told the New York Times, "There is now no route through this resolution that circumvents" the weapons inspectors. Which means there is no way for the United States to make an independent judgment without being accused of subverting a process the United States appears to have authorized.

That is why the French are "delighted." They have succeeded in ensuring that President Bush must come back to the Security Council before ordering an invasion. According to Colin Powell, the United States is committed to participating in another debate at the Security Council, which may mean another vote, as well. This two-stage process is what France demanded all along, and what the United States allegedly resisted all along.

SO THE BEST that can be hoped for now is a return to the Security Council sometime within or shortly after the next 105 days. At which point, we will be back where we began eight weeks ago. The Bush administration will claim the time has come for military action, and the French and Russians will argue that the time has not come, that the reports are ambiguous, that inspections need more time, etc. Then, it is true, President Bush will be free to flout the will of Security Council members and invade if he chooses. That is why administration officials still bravely declare that the president has not been "handcuffed" by the latest resolution. But surely this is no victory for American diplomacy. After all, the president, in this sense, has never been handcuffed. He has always been free to ignore the Security Council. So the question is, given that Bush has felt it necessary to let France and Russia, and his own negotiators, tie his policy in knots in order to win U.N. approval for his actions over the last eight weeks, will he feel freer to act without U.N. approval 15 weeks from now? One thing is sure: France and Russia, having won big this week on their demand for a second stage of Security Council deliberations, are not going to fold when their next opportunity to prevent the invasion arrives--especially if Saddam can, for four months, more or less behave.

Which brings us to the final and most problematic figure into whose hands the fate of President Bush's policy has been placed: Saddam Hussein himself.

We understand the operating assumption behind Bush's whole approach to the U.N. inspections plan: Saddam will blow it, somehow. He won't agree to accept the new resolution. Or if he does accept it, he will immediately demonstrate his unwillingness to abide by its terms. Or when it comes time to declare what weapons facilities Iraq has, he will lie or fudge, and we'll catch him. Somewhere, sometime, somehow, Saddam will trip up and give the United States the pretext to do what Bush wants to do--take him out militarily.

There is both history and logic behind the Saddam-is-foolish assumption. In January 1991, Saddam had a chance to prevent the U.S. attack on his forces in Kuwait. He sent his then-foreign minister Tariq Aziz to meet with then-secretary of state James Baker in Geneva. Baker was as opposed to a war against Iraq then as the current secretary of state is opposed to a war against Iraq now. Had Aziz made any concession, any concession at all, Baker might have declared progress and convinced the first President Bush to delay the attack. But Aziz offered nothing. Saddam proved he was too stupid, or too unimaginative, or too crazy to make a few gestures to avoid an American attack. More than a decade later, we are supposed to believe, he has learned nothing and will make the same mistake all over again. The Saddam-is-foolish argument is plausible. But it's a little nerve-wracking to have to base our future security on the premise that the man has learned nothing.

The case that Saddam has little room to maneuver is also plausible. We know Saddam is building weapons of mass destruction and that he is hiding them. Therefore, the argument runs, he has only three choices: admit it, and either disarm entirely or face an American invasion; deny it, and then try to prevent weapons inspectors from finding the facilities and weapons, and face an American invasion; or deny it, and let the inspectors roam freely until they prove him a liar, and then face an American invasion. Disarming is tantamount to suicide. Therefore, Saddam will lie or obstruct or both, in which case the wording of U.N. Security Council resolutions doesn't matter. Saddam will give the United States the pretext for invasion, and the French and Russians will not be able to stop Bush.

As we say, this is plausible. Perhaps it is even likely. But surely there is another possibility: That Saddam will tell some half-truths and some half-lies. That he will disarm in those areas where he has chosen to be truthful, but not in those areas where he is lying. That he will give inspectors free access, with perhaps the occasional bump in the road, but in the course of 105 days they won't find anything conclusive--no smoking gun to present to the Security Council as an unquestionable "material breach." What then? On what grounds will President Bush declare that the inspections effort has failed and the only remaining option is an invasion? The legal and scientific case may be no stronger then than it is now.

One answer administration officials give is that they intend to have "zero tolerance" for Iraqi misbehavior or dissimulation during the next 105 days. The minute Bush sees something he doesn't like, he will take action. We trust this will indeed be the administration's approach. But what would trigger such a decision by Bush? Inspectors being turned away from a facility? Discovering a stash of "dual-use" chemicals that Saddam didn't put on his list? One scientist saying something bad was going on somewhere a year or two ago? Given the concessions of Bush's negotiators at the U.N., how exactly will Bush officials implement their "zero tolerance" approach? The truth is, they don't really know.

IN FACT, the inspections process may go on for a long time--"months," Secretary of State Powell has suggested--before anyone can claim with certainty that Saddam is flouting U.N. resolutions. And if it does take months for Saddam to trip himself up, if it takes until May or June or August, will the president then be able to rally the country behind military action? Will the summer heat in the desert preclude a relatively safe operation? Or will military action then have to wait until this time next year, with the 2004 presidential race pending?

And there is a more important question: Will the clarity of the case for war have been compromised, perhaps fatally, by this latest round of diplomacy? Until recently, the president had made it plain that the United States was going to war to remove the clear and imminent danger of an aggressive dictator developing nuclear weapons. But two months from now he may have to argue for war on the grounds that two inspectors were turned away from a suspicious chemical factory. That is not progress.

The tragic irony, of course, is that the inspections regime cannot possibly "work," no matter how compliant Saddam chooses to be. It simply cannot eliminate the danger Saddam poses to the United States and to the world. Even if the inspectors were to find and destroy some of his illicit weapons and weapons-making facilities, we could never be confident that they had found and destroyed all of them. Nor is there anything to stop Saddam, after "disarming" and getting a clean bill of health, from beginning all over again. That is why President Bush has been right all along to insist on a change of regime in Iraq. The problem is not just Saddam's weapons. The problem is Saddam.

The president knows this. But right now his administration is conducting a policy that deliberately denies and obscures this fundamental truth. And the further we stumble down this road, the greater the danger that the clarity of our vision--which the president has worked so hard to establish--may become hopelessly clouded.

That is the case for pessimism. But there is also a case for optimism. It rests entirely on President Bush himself. We find it inconceivable that the president intends to end his first term with Saddam Hussein still in power. He knows what a disaster that would be, for the security of his nation, for the world, and for him personally. While he has allowed his negotiators to give away too much in New York, it is possible that in Bush's eyes all that matters is his own freedom of action. He may not feel "handcuffed" in the slightest, despite the fact that the Security Council resolution appears to do just that. Perhaps what the president really believes is that, at the end of the day, he will act when he deems it necessary to act, no matter what Blix and the Security Council say. That is our hope. We trust the president will ensure that his administration's vision remains unclouded by the smoke emanating from the U.N., and that, at the right moment, and at a moment not dangerously far off and not indefinitely to be postponed, he will thank the U.N. and our "allies" for their efforts, and order his military to get about the urgent business of removing Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.

--William Kristol and Robert Kagan