December 24, 2002
Ray of Hope?
it's the season, and a not entirely rational desire to have the
birthday of the Prince of Peace be something other than a harbinger
of all-out war this year. But a phone conversation with Jessica
Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,
gave me a few brief moments of hope last week. I do hope she is
more right than I, in my more cynical moments, am inclined to be.
issue, of course, was the announcement by the U.S. government that
the Iraqi declaration on weapons of mass destruction is incomplete
and unsatisfactory. Both presidential press spokesman Ari Fleischer
and Secretary of State Colin Powell said that the declaration, submitted
in apparent compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 1441,
contained serious errors and omissions. The government hasn't officially
declared that Iraq was in "material breach" – love the
latest magic words – of the resolution, which in the view of many
would provide sifficient justification for an invasion. But Washington
is clearly unhappy.
Hans Blix, the UN weapons inspector, dismissed by many in the war
party as a wimp who would either turn a blind eye to infractions
or conduct himself so as not to find any, has said that Iraq missed
an opportunity for peace by lying in its report, as he is apparently
convinced the Iraqis did.
Mathews urged me to see the bright side of the matter. The United
States, for all its bluster did not proclaim a material breach and
thus set this country on a path that would inevitably lead to war.
Some of us might argue that the main reason is that the U.S. hasn't
completed the process of bringing military personnel and materiel
into the area, so it isn't ready for war just yet.
Mathews, however, says it just might be an indication that the war
party in the administration hasn't quite won the day in intra-government
tussling, at least not yet. "The war party is winning the spin
game – all the networks are full of speculation about how this brings
us one step closer to war – but the doubters still control the actual
policy," she told me.
war actually begins, she prefers to believe that Colin Powell and
a few allies are trying hard to avoid the war, even as they know
the war whoopers still have plenty of power and plenty of rhetorical
ammunition. She urges me and others to watch the actual policy.
The rhetoric is bellicose, to be sure, but so far the policies have
been more accommodationist than many acknowledge.
THE UN GAME
the administration last September chose to go through the United
Nations and a resumption of the UN weapons inspection regime rather
than going to war unilaterally. This might have been only a feint,
but it carries certain implications. Not only did the administration
wait and wait – as the war party gnashed its teeth in impatience
– for the Security Council to debate, adjust and finally pass a
resolution. The decision means that the United States will at least
have to pretend to support a process such higher-ups as Cheney and
Rumsfeld had previously denounced as ineffective and deceptive.
That means keeping up appearances and at least avoiding outright
unilateral action in public and in public statements.
this moment, keeping up those appearances means, among other things,
thinking about offering to share with the UN inspectors whatever
intelligence information U.S. officials, who declare with such confidence
that Saddam really does have weapons of mass destruction, think
gives them that kind of confidence. If we know Saddam is lying because
various surveillance methods enable the U.S. to know about weapons
sites that are undeclared or "dual-use" facilities that
are being used nefariously, then why not let Blix and the boys have
the info so they can pull a pop inspection?
the United States chooses not to share such intelligence with the
UN inspectors, that decision will eventually erode U.S. credibility
considerably. Either the U.S. doesn't have specific information
that calls the Iraqi declaration into serious question, some critics
will say, or it has chosen to undermine the inspection regime it
not only endorses but set in motion. So sooner or later the U.S.
will have to put up or shut up.
enough, by Sunday the Iraqi government – which has shown itself
to be pretty deft in this kind of maneuvering – was openly inviting
CIA agents to come into Iraq and lead the UN inspectors to the sites
it claims to know about. To be sure, hardly anybody would accuse
Saddam Hussein and his minions of innocence when it comes to empty
bluster. But this kind of bluster could put the U.S. on the defensive.
other factor is that even a perfunctory UN inspection process will
take a long time. Perhaps Hans Blix and his people are exaggerating
the amount of time needed, but if it really does drag on for months
or even years without providing a clearcut casus belli, the
end result might just be that a good deal of the wind is taken out
of the war party's sails.
may hope. Remember, 'tis the season.
the course of our conversation Ms. Mathews mentioned another issue
that has been in the news of late. The UN resolution did include
the option of taking leading Iraqi scientists or weapons experts
out of the country for questioning. William Safire, a warhawk's
warhawk, last week urged Hans Blix to do this as quickly as possible
suggesting strongly that the credibility of the inspections regimen
would be severely undermined otherwise.
Mathews suggested to me that this kind of thinking is wrongheaded
and perhaps even perverse. While not advocating that the option
be eliminated, she argued that using it might not be ineffective.
Even if the UN offered to take the entire immediate families of
Iraqi scientists out of the country with them, those scientists
would still have colleagues, friends, or extended family who could
be subjected to pressure. So the likelihood of a scientist agreeing
to such a procedure – unless he had already decided to defect (whatever
that means in this day and age) – would be pretty low.
if an Iraqi scientist was genuinely eager to impart information
to the UN inspectors about some facility or site that had been used
for weapons research or production, agreeing to be taken out of
the country might well be the last option he would consider desirable.
Any such occasion would immediately be publicized and politicized
and be the occasion for innumerable denunciations and posturings.
Plenty of people would choose to believe that precisely because
a scientist was taken out of the country and given reasons and perhaps
inducements to defect anything he said would be lacking in credibility.
might well be far better to whisper revelations in a private meeting
or to drop veiled hints in a meeting one suspected was under surveillance.
If you really wanted to put the inspectors onto something the best
bet could well be to do as little as possible to draw attention
to yourself, to let the meeting appear as ordinary and uneventful
Mathews doesn't necessarily think either alternative – out of the
country or quiet revelation – should be off the table. But the idea
that the effectiveness of the inspections regimen should be judged
by whether Hans Blix and the boys whisk a dozen or so Iraqi scientists
out of the country for a well-publicized secret briefing – which
is pretty close to what Safire and a few others have urged – is
FOR THE BEST
my own cynical view, the U.S. administration is more likely to be
playing the inspections game only for as long as it takes to complete
the military build-up needed to defeat Iraq decisively. I think
it has waited this long because the Pentagon won the intra-government
battle and insisted on a large-scale operation with a virtual certainty
of fairly prompt victory, involving perhaps 300,000 troops and support
personnel, rather than the smaller-scale quick invasion with maybe
70,000 troops that overeager and impatient hawks had preferred.
virtue of talking with Jessica Mathews, however, was to remind me
of the real possibility that the decision on war has not quite been
made yet, that there are still people within the administration
who are fighting to have an outcome other than outright war. If
such people do exist – and I have to believe there must be a few
in this administration and perhaps even more in the permanent government
– we should wish them well and Godspeed.
let me close with a sincere wish for the best of Christmases to
all our readers – and especially those who take the trouble to argue
with us or give us an electronic pat on the back. This is a time
of hope, a time when we can reflect on the likelihood that the petty
political leaders who dominate the headlines and most of our worrisome
moments are really much less important that we – and especially
they – sometimes think they are.
the New Year be one of abundance and peace.
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