Path Not Taken May Haunt Bush

The dispute over Iraq’s Al Samoud missiles illustrates how United Nations inspections might have brought about the disarmament of the Baghdad regime without war-and why they almost certainly will not. None of those mid-range weapons poses the slightest realistic threat to the United States unless our forces invade Iraq, but they are important as symbols of a process that is beginning to succeed just when it is about to be cut short.

That is the paradox of weapons inspections under U.N. Resolution 1441: The inspections could not have begun, let alone achieved their purpose, without the threat of force. Yet the prospect of force may also discourage full cooperation on the part of the Iraqi regime.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer accused Iraq of concealing the existence of the Al Samoud missiles until now, as part of the gaming of inspections by Baghdad. But Mr. Fleischer was wrong, because the Iraqis revealed the existence of the missiles in their December report to the U.N. Security Council. Iraqi officials have argued that they aren’t required to destroy those missiles under Resolution 1441 or earlier U.N. resolutions, yet they have begun to do so under orders from U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix.

The complication is that the Iraqis may refuse to complete the destruction of the missiles because they believe that invasion is imminent regardless. Why should they accede to the demands of Dr. Blix, and weaken their own defenses, if the Bush administration intends to enforce “regime change” no matter what the Iraqis do?

However monstrous and lawless Saddam Hussein undoubtedly is, that question shouldn’t be dismissed. It expresses the suspicion of decent people around the world that the Bush administration never wanted inspections to work, that Resolution 1441 was designed as a fig leaf for a long-planned war, and that this entire process has been a cynical charade not just for Baghdad but for Washington as well. If the White House terms each concession by Iraq a worthless “distraction,” how can those suspicions be answered?

For our utopian hawks, who believe that U.S. military power moots all issues, the world’s questions don’t matter. Who cares what they think? Any sane person cares, because we need the help of all foreigners to fight terrorism-as this week’s capture of a top terror commander by the Pakistanis proved.

For those reasons and others, including the preservation of NATO and the U.N., it is in America’s interest to show that our government honestly pursued solutions short of war to the Iraqi problem. Every opportunity to prove our own sincerity has been discarded rather arrogantly by the White House. Every proclamation that the President really prefers to avoid war has been contradicted in the next breath by declarations that Iraq has done nothing and can do nothing that would satisfy the Bush administration.

There was another, different path that the President and his advisers disdained. They could have played the tough cop while working with America’s traditional allies. They could have insisted on certain benchmarks for the progress of inspections, with firm deadlines for military action if those deadlines were not met. While such a policy would have required patience, the rewards might well have been great: unity rather than division among the allies, and the sharing of military and humanitarian burdens that may reach a trillion dollars.

Meanwhile, Dr. Blix constantly defies the expectations of both sides. Denounced by American conservatives last year as a “Clouseau-like” figure whose selection had been ordained by Saddam Hussein himself, the chief inspector has played his role straight down the middle, forcing concessions from Baghdad while resisting pressures from Washington.

In recent weeks, the same pundits who once dismissed the Swedish diplomat have cited his tough, realistic assessments of Iraq’s behavior to justify their own eagerness for war. His next and perhaps final report is likely to indicate that military pressure has pushed inspections forward. While he scrupulously avoids recommendations about making war, he has showed that inspections can work-if they are given time and teeth.

Dr. Blix told the editors of Time magazine last week that the signs of Iraqi compliance had encouraged him to think progress would be possible last month. He believes that a few more months of inspections would allow him to determine whether Iraq will comply fully with Resolution 1441. He even indicated that the French, the Russians and other skeptical nations would likely assent to war if the Iraqis failed to disarm within the next few months.

It is hard to understand why an American President who says he still hopes to avoid war-with all its human, political and economic costs-is too impatient to learn whether Dr. Blix’s assessment is correct. His spokesman says that the destruction of the Al Samoud missiles is too late. But too late for what?