War Stories

Drop Dead Date

When Saddam lies, will the bombs fly?

So, are we declaring war this Sunday? President Bush seemed to suggest as much in a speech last Monday at the Pentagon. Sunday is Dec. 8, the much-publicized date by which U.N. Resolution 1441 requires Saddam Hussein to declare his complete holdings of everything having anything to do with nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. “That declaration must be credible and complete, or the Iraqi dictator will have demonstrated to the world once again that he has chosen not to change his behavior” and has “rejected the path of peace,” Bush said.

A “senior official” explained to reporters after Bush’s speech that even so, the war won’t start right away. Saddam’s list will be hundreds, maybe thousands of pages. It must be translated, analyzed. “The more important date,” the official said, will be when the assessment is complete. Still, the implication was clear: The documents that Saddam hands over this weekend mark a turning point, the wind-up before the war pitch.

But does it really? Even if Saddam’s declaration is brimming with mendacity, are we thereby authorized to let the smart bombs rain?

The operative passage in the U.N. resolution is Article 4: Any “false statements or omissions in the declaration … shall constitute a further material breach” of Iraq’s obligations. According to several other sections, “a further material breach” must result in “serious consequences,” a phrase that needs no explaining.

However, further down in Article 4, after the bit about a “material breach,” a clause notes that any such problems with the declaration “will be reported to the [Security] Council for assessment in accordance with paragraphs 11 and/or 12 below.”

Paragraph 11 instructs Hans Blix, director of the U.N. inspection team, “to report immediately to the Council any interference by Iraq, or failure by Iraq to comply with its disarmament obligations.” More pertinently, Paragraph 12 orders the council “to convene immediately upon receipt of a report in accordance with paragraphs 4 or 11 above, in order to consider the situation and the need for full compliance with all of the relevant Council resolutions in order to secure international peace and security.”

In other words, whatever Saddam’s list says or doesn’t say, nothing can be done about it without further action by the Security Council, which shall “consider” not merely “the situation,” and not merely whether Iraq is in full compliance, but also “the need for full compliance.”

U.S. and British officials have been saying they will observe a “zero-tolerance” interpretation of this resolution. The slightest Iraqi interference with the U.N. inspectors, the most trivial false statement or omission in Iraq’s declaration, and they will blow the penalty whistle, call “material breach,” and proceed with the “serious consequences.” However, the resolution clearly states that, after the whistle blows, the international league of referees gets to hold a conference to discuss the play and even, if someone wants, to reassess the rulebook.

Another question: How will we know whether Saddam’s list contains “false statements or omissions”? Has Bush been briefed on some ultra-top-secret intelligence, which he will unilaterally declassify and unveil after the list’s assessment is complete—something along the lines of President Kennedy, in 1962, directing his U.N. Ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, to display the U-2 photos, which proved indisputably that the Soviets were deploying missiles in Cuba? That would be a neat, cinematic moment (as Stevenson’s certainly was) and might shock even the French into action. However, a less tangible demonstration (and the inspectors seem unlikely to uncover anything soon) might not be compelling enough.

The senior official who commented on Bush’s Pentagon speech suggested there may indeed be some such card up a sleeve. “The drama here may be how much we are willing to reveal,” the official said. If so, this playlet will go on record as the administration’s cleverest yet most inexplicably best-kept secret. But there are two other possible interpretations of such a statement (especially if there is no such card). One is quasi-military: By ratcheting up psy-war pressures, the administration hopes to make Saddam so nervous that he commits a blunder or to make some of Saddam’s colonels so nervous that they put a bullet in him to avert catastrophe (which may be the administration’s intent, not only in this act of the drama but in the entire past year’s series of threat gambits). The other is political: to create a situation in which we will have to go to war, once the troops are ready to do so, in order to avoid further erosion of our credibility.

Meanwhile, officials will comb through the documents—the U.N. resolutions and Saddam’s declarations—for the subtlest casus belli. A few days after the Security Council passed Resolution 1441, some Pentagon officials tried to put it to what they saw as good use. When American jets patrolling Iraq’s no-fly zone came under anti-aircraft fire for the umpteenth time, officials made an excited case that this action violated Article 8, which states: “Iraq shall not take or threaten hostile acts directed against any representative or personnel of the United Nations … or of any MemberState taking actions to uphold any Council resolution.”(Emphasis added.) The pilots in those jets were personnel of just such a member state, so wasn’t this a material breach, calling for serious consequences? No one bought it. First, the no-fly-zone patrols did not, strictly speaking, uphold a council resolution. Second, Article 8 is one of the few in the resolution that has no explicit enforcement clause.

International politics practically demands that war with Iraq be legitimized by the United Nations. Yet short of some spectacular event, the United Nations is becoming an increasingly implausible trigger. And so, if Bush and his top advisers truly regard Dec. 8 as a landmark date, then we should all get ready, very soon now, for a spectacular event.