Perhaps 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.
The 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.
Even 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.
A BRIGHT SIDE?
Jessica 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.
Jessica 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.
Until 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.
PLAYING THE UN GAME
Thus 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.
At 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?
If 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.
Sure 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.
The 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.
One may hope. Remember, ’tis the season.
During 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.
Jessica 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.
Indeed, 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.
It 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 as possible.
Ms. 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 arrant nonsense.
HOPING FOR THE BEST
In 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.
The 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.
So 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.
May the New Year be one of abundance and peace.