War Stories

Into the Breach

The U.N. says Saddam flunked his test. Does that mean we go to war?

If U.N. Resolution 1441 were taken literally, then Inspector Hans Blix’s comments before the Security Council Monday morning would pave the way for war. This was a tough statement, sternly delivered. “Iraq appears not to have come to an acceptance, not even today, of the disarmament that was demanded of it,” Blix said. Iraq has not yet answered questions that were raised about omissions in its Dec. 7 declaration, which was supposed to have been a full listing of the country’s weapons stockpiles and facilities. These questions concern the fate of several tons of VX nerve gas, some anthrax growth, a mustard gas precursor, 6,000 chemical rockets, and so forth. The Iraqis say all these deadly weapons have been destroyed, but Blix said he needs to see the proof—surely there must be documents in one agency or another—and the Iraqis haven’t supplied it. By the terms of Resolution 1441, any false statements or omissions in this Iraqi declaration constitute a “material breach”; any further material breach must lead to “serious consequences.” Hence, President Bush would seem to have his casus belli.

So, why the near universal double-talk that followed Blix’s tough briefing? Jean-Marc de La Sabliere, the French ambassador to the United Nations and, this month, president of the Security Council, commented that, yes, we need more active cooperation from Iraq, but we also need more time—”several weeks,” maybe “a few months”—for the inspection process to take hold. Gunter Pleuger, the German ambassador (to whom the council’s presidency rotates next month), said, in a particularly vigorous tone, that our goal must be to “fully disarm Iraq,” then added that he hoped this could be done peacefully. “We have just sharpened the tools of inspection,” he noted, and so we should keep it going. Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, legitimized this line of thinking. The inspectors haven’t yet found evidence that Iraq has revived its nuclear program. “Our work is steadily progressing,” he said, “and should be allowed to run its natural course.”

There are two ways to view these evasions: 1) as a cynical illustration of the United Nations’ irresponsibility; 2) as a realistic expression of the fact that a failing grade doesn’t make Iraq an immediate candidate for invasion. Both views are correct, as far as they go. As for the first, it probably is true, as the hawks feared all along, that sending in the inspectors was a ruse to avoid sending in the Marines. As long as inspectors were on the case, there would—there could—be no war (unless, of course, they somehow really managed to find something). How long can an inspection “run its natural course”? For as long as there remains something to inspect, which is to say forever. For many inspection advocates, this was the idea. (It also helps explain why Secretary of State Colin Powell backed away from inspections so radically over the weekend, even going so far as to say, “Inspections will never work.” Once the French and the Germans let their hidden agenda out of the bag—that inspections were an alternative to war and a fairly permanent one, at that—Powell, already suspected as a closet dove by his Bush administration colleagues, had to disavow not only French and German pacifism but the whole package. To retain his power and credibility, he had to become, at least within the context of the current debate, more hawkish than the hawks.)

On the other hand (and here we get to the second way to view the evasion), the pro-inspection faction has a point. Is the United Nations really going to authorize war merely because Iraq has violated a U.N. resolution? Has this been the grounds for any war in the past? Should it be the grounds for any war in the future? It’s one thing to go to war in order to reverse a violation of the U.N. Charter, as for example the Security Council authorized in 1991 after Iraq invaded Kuwait. But in order to punish an omission—even a serious omission—in a U.N.-ordered declaration? The United Nations doesn’t take itself—nor does it deserve to be taken—that seriously. Put it this way: If there were no U.N. Charter, there still would have been just cause to declare war on Iraq for invading Kuwait. If there were no U.N. Resolution 1441, nobody would think for an instant of declaring war on Iraq for not fully itemizing its weapons stockpiles.

This has been said before, but Blix’s testimony today makes the point more valid and urgent, not less so: If President Bush has information that substantively justifies going to war against Iraq (and he may, he may), then it’s time to come out with it.