The question before the world is not whether Iraq should be disarmed, but under what auspices, in what manner and-most significantly at the moment-according to whose schedule.
Saddam Hussein would surely prefer an extended or nonexistent deadline for full compliance with the international laws that require his surrender of weapons of mass destruction (and the means to deliver them). George W. Bush has mentioned no certain date yet, but would probably prefer a deadline that permits an early invasion. The likeliest deadline, however, will allow the U.N. inspectors headed by Hans Blix at least four months, and perhaps six months, to do their job.
Does that sound lackadaisical? To wait several months will try the patience of that battalion of columnists and cable loudmouths-the “windbags of war,” as one wit called them -who demand bloody combat from the safety of their Aeron chairs. To the three retired American generals who testified last Monday on Capitol Hill in favor of deliberate action joined by our allies, such patience is only common sense.
There is no military reason to rush into war without an international coalition and the color of international law. There are, as Al Gore bravely pointed out on Sept. 23 in San Francisco, many diplomatic and strategic reasons not to do so. The Bush White House is so worked up over Iraq that it’s discarding our long relationship with Germany, a powerful partner, in a tantrum. This is infantile behavior, not grown-up diplomacy -and it can’t be explained by the urgency of the Iraqi threat.
Even a cursory examination of the evidence delivered so far concerning Iraqi capabilities and intentions should cool the politically inspired war hysteria. Consider the dossier just presented by the British government. It was preceded by publicity that this comprehensive survey by Tony Blair’s spy agencies would prove the case for immediate military action against Baghdad. It doesn’t.
This doesn’t mean that Mr. Blair’s study is useless or unimportant. As Major Charles Heyman, editor of the authoritative Jane’s World Armies , told the London newspapers, “It does not produce any convincing evidence, or any ‘killer fact,’ that says that Saddam Hussein has to be taken out straight away. What it does do is produce very convincing evidence that the weapons inspectors have to be pushed back into Iraq very quickly.”
The British intelligence dossier indicates that Iraq successfully concealed some biological and chemical weapons, and may also have hidden means to produce more. The dossier says that Iraq has been seeking to purchase uranium and other industrial materials useful in building nukes, and estimates that if Saddam obtains black-market fissile material, he could build a bomb in less than two years. The document signed by Mr. Blair also says that unless Saddam does obtain such material, Iraq is at least five years away from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Sanctions, although inexcusably brutal to the civilian population, have hindered Iraq’s missile-development program, too. Contrary to the assertions of conservative fear-mongers, the British study clarifies the Iraqi military’s ability to deliver biological or chemical weapons. There may be a dozen or so missiles of medium range (about 400 miles) somewhere in Iraq; there are none that can travel further. The current situation, therefore, is that Saddam can threaten his neighbors, not us-at least not now, and probably not for a long time.
In the American media, with our preference for simple stories, the British prime minister is usually portrayed as a full-throated supporter of the President’s drive toward war. This restructuring of reality is similar to the false choice we’ve been offered by Republican spokesmen and their obedient echoes: multilateral “appeasement” or unilateral “pre-emption.”
But the real choices before us are quite different, as Mr. Blair himself explained Tuesday in his speech to Parliament. After he reviewed the disturbing assessment of the Iraq situation by his government’s Joint Intelligence Committee, he assured his listeners that Britain’s goal was to disarm Saddam through diplomatic means if possible, through military means if necessary.
“Of course there is no doubt that Iraq, the region and the whole world would be better off without Saddam,” said Mr. Blair, acknowledging all the reasons why that is true. “But our purpose is disarmament. No one wants military conflict. The whole purpose of putting this before the U.N. is to demonstrate the united determination of the international community to resolve this in the way it should have been resolved years ago: through a proper process of disarmament under the U.N.”
That’s why Mr. Blair dined at 10 Downing Street on Tuesday evening with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, whose overtures have been so petulantly rejected by the Bush White House. No doubt the prime minister is trying to work out a realistic schedule for dealing with Saddam-which may not be satisfactory to the hawks in Washington or the weasel in Baghdad.