War or Peace? Why, for Now, There Will Be No War with Iraq


Jan 19, 2003

This commentary originally appeared in San Francisco Chronicle on January 19, 2003.

The dogs of war are snarling over Iraq, but they won't be unleashed any time soon. The Bush administration is amassing a powerful military force in the region, and it continues to rally the American people and U.S. allies. The U.N. inspectors are scheduled to report on Jan. 27, but their report will not unloose the leash. The administration will find itself snared in the tangle it sought to avoid -- the yakety-yak of U.N. diplomats urging that the inspectors be given more time.

In the end, though, it might just snatch a success short of war. Hussein might be enticed into exile through the entreaties from fellow Arabs being made behind the scenes. Alternatively, a permanent inspection regime might provide reasonable assurance that Iraq cannot build dangerous weapons, even if the administration didn't like leaving Hussein in power.

If the United States achieves success short of war, it will be largely because it portrayed itself -- to enemies and allies alike -- as utterly prepared to go to war.

In the short run, weather and troop deployments impose deadlines of their own, but neither is an unavoidable trigger to war. The troops being sent to the region -- last week's deployment orders included 62,000 more troops -- cannot be kept in readiness for a long time, all the less so because some of those deployed are reservists, separated from their families and ordinary jobs back home. Nor are U.S. allies in the region as willing to harbor them this time around as they were at the time of Desert Storm in 1991. For that reason, in part, the administration's war plan apparently contemplates a larger version of what it did in Afghanistan, quickly moving U.S. troops to bases and facilities seized inside Iraq.

The constraint imposed by weather is the unpleasant prospect of fighting a war in the heat of a desert summer and the extra burden it would impose on operating and maintaining high-tech weaponry. Still, troops deployed can be returned home, to be replaced by fresh units rotated from the United States or sent back again later. Both options are expensive, but cost has not been a factor high in the administration's calculations. So, too, the war could be fought in the summer if need be, or it could be deferred to a future season other than summer.

When the U.N. inspectors briefed the Security Council earlier this month, they were critical of Iraq's voluminous but mostly uninformative weapons declaration. American officials were quick to read that criticism as a serious breach of U.N. resolution 1441, adopted by the Council unanimously on Nov. 8. The resolution says that "omissions or false statements" constitute elements of such a breach.

However, critical U.S. allies don't see it that way. They read the resolution as also stipulating Iraqi obstruction of the inspections as part of a breach. They want to give the inspectors more time -- not to mention more U. S. and other intelligence -- all the more so as their own publics turn warier of war.

While Bush's staunchest partner, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, continues Britain's own buildup in the Gulf, he faces resistance within his governing Labor Party to going to war just on Washington's say-so. He is looking to the U.N. inspectors for political cover, and British officials are wondering aloud why war can't wait until autumn.

The Jan. 27 report is unlikely to contain the proverbial smoking gun, what was termed in 1993 a "material breach" of the resolutions. Hans Blix, the chief U.N. inspector, made that clear recently, and the report itself is now billed as more interim than final. The report will only open the next round of diplomatic wrangling. The United States will argue that, cumulatively, Iraqi omissions and errors amount to a significant breach, and besides, no second resolution after 1441 is necessary to authorize war.

Others on the Security Council, especially France and Russia, will argue for more time and more inspections. For them, the Iraqi declaration and the Jan. 27 report will be not a deadline but only the beginning of inspections in earnest. If Iraq has not been fully candid about its programs, why not give it more time to make good on its commitments?

Part of the Jan. 27 report will be the inspectors' work plan for the following two months. In particular, there has not yet been much progress in interviewing Iraqi scientists outside Iraq -- which could shed real light on the Iraqi record and would be a very visible sign of Iraq's non-cooperation if it obstructed the interviews.

In one of history's fine ironies, Saddam Hussein's performance looks all the better because that of another nuclear miscreant, North Korea's Kim Jong Il, has been so bad. Iraq at least has not visibly interfered with the U.N. inspectors; North Korea has summarily expelled its U.N. inspectors, withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and announced the intention to restart its nuclear reactors. And yet the United States is edging, reluctantly,

toward negotiating with North Korea, so why not do the same with Iraq?

What happens if there is no war this spring will depend mostly on Iraq. If Hussein returns to form, prevaricating and interfering with the inspections, then war is likely only to be postponed, perhaps until autumn, as even the wafflers on the Security Council come to the conclusion that there is no alternative.

Yet success without war is possible. Hussein is a survivor, and he might be persuaded to go into exile if he convinced himself that, in the long run, once the Americans fail, his country will need him. The rub is that Hussein wants assurance he won't be prosecuted as a war criminal, which we are loath to give him. If Iraq continued to give the inspectors unfettered access to its facilities, the international community might be reasonably confident that Hussein was not building proscribed weapons -- just what was contemplated when the inspections regime was put in place a decade ago, before Hussein first harassed and then ejected the inspectors in 1998.

Strangely, more than a decade of past policy toward Iraq is despised when it ought to be celebrated, modestly, as a success.

Sure, Hussein continues to try to build chemical and biological weapons, and to aspire to building nuclear ones. There is no doubt he is a nasty man. He has used chemical and biological weapons on his own people. Much of the world shares the view that he should be gone.

Yet the fact that he is still there obscures the fact that he has been contained, if not perfectly. His military is much weaker than it was at the time of Desert Storm. The U.S. and British intelligence assessments that accompanied Bush's speech to the United Nations and Blair's to his Parliament last fall made a powerful case for Hussein's nastiness. Those assessments, though, also demonstrated how contained he has been. For all his trying, he is still a year or two away from possessing nuclear weapons -- and that is if he can beg, buy or steal the fissile material. Without it, he is a half-decade or more away -- no closer than he was in 1990, and perhaps further away.

A lifetime ago, when the nuclear arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union, then called SALT II, were completed, the Joint Chiefs of Staff pronounced their verdict: "Modest but useful." The chiefs probably meant to damn with faint praise, but in fact they praised with faint damning. In the hoary world of international politics, modest advances are hardly to be despised.

The Bush administration might wind up with such a success, even if it left Hussein in power. If it did achieve such a success, the final irony would be that success would come largely because the administration did not want it -- it would come because the administration was more than ready to unleash war.

Gregory F. Treverton is a senior analyst at RAND. He was vice chair of the National Intelligence Council in the first Clinton administration.

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