War Stories

Give Saddam Two More Weeks

A good idea from the Canadians.

The Canadians have a sensible proposal for a compromise resolution that could lend some political legitimacy to the coming war against Iraq. Mexico and Chile are lobbying for the measure inside the U.N. Security Council. (They are among the body’s 10 nonpermanent members while Canada does not have a seat.) The Bush administration, which should be welcoming such mediation, has dismissed their efforts out of hand. It’s hard to understand why.

The proposal—written not in the style of a resolution but as an informal memo titled “Ideas on Bridging the Divide”—is intended to boost the chances that, whatever action is taken in Iraq, it will be done with the unanimous support of the Security Council or at least with a more decisive, less divisive majority.

In refreshingly civil fashion, the memo notes that both sides in the U.N. standoff “have a point: an open-ended inspection process [such as the French, Russians, and Chinese want] would relieve the pressure on the Iraqis to disarm” while “a truncated inspection process [such as the United States and U.K. are calling for] would leave doubt that war was a last resort.”

So, here’s Canada’s idea: Set a deadline, “for example, March 28.” That would be “near-term enough to keep the pressure on the Iraqis to disarm” while affording “sufficient time for judgments to be made whether the Iraqis were cooperating on substance in disarming and/or providing persuasive and credible evidence that weapons have already been destroyed as claimed.” In the meantime, the inspectors will present a list of what Iraq must do, in what order, by when. The council will receive weekly progress reports. On the 28th, the inspectors will deliver a final report. On the 31st, the council will meet. “If the inspectors have reported substantial Iraqi compliance,” then a “robust” inspection and monitoring system will be put on the ground. “If the inspectors have reported continued Iraqi evasion, all necessary means would be used to force them to disarm.”

Some of this language would have to be tightened before being taken up as a serious resolution. For example, it is quite possible for the inspectors to report “substantial Iraqi compliance” and “continued Iraqi evasion.” In fact, every inspectors’ report to date has done just that. The authors of the memo realize this; it’s a draft, not a final statement; a certain finessing has been deliberate, just to put an alternative idea in motion. They realize, however, that “substantial Iraqi compliance” means total compliance with U.N. Resolution 1441, which the council after all passed unanimously last November. “The Iraqis have to pass in every category,” one Canadian official told me. “They can’t get by with a B-plus here and an A-minus there.”

If the language can be worked out, this might create a middle ground between the United States and U.K., which say Saddam Hussein has already passed up his last chance to comply with the resolution, and the coalition of France, Russia, and China, which argue that war should be put off as long as the inspectors continue to note any progress whatsoever.

Legally, of course, the United States and U.K. are right. Resolution 1441 states that Iraq must declare its holdings of chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons; that they must provide complete, immediate, and unconditional cooperation; that failure to do so would constitute another “material breach” of Iraq’s obligations (dating back to the 1991 cease-fire), which would result in “serious consequences.” Iraq has indisputably failed to meet these obligations.

However, three of the Big Five, as well as many (perhaps most) of the countries outside the Security Council, to say nothing of millions of demonstrators and the vast majority of public opinion around the world, still consider war unjustified. More than that, an astonishing array of world leaders, including many who normally support (or at least indulge) American muscle-flexing, fear that Team Bush’s imperious tendencies are getting out of hand; they fear domination, powerlessness. At a speech in Mexico City yesterday, the Canadian prime minister, Jean Chrétien, said, “We have to think of consequences if there is a war outside of the U.N. We live in a very different world today. We have only one supernation in the world, one superpower, and the United Nations are needed more than ever.”

One definition of a diplomat is someone who not only persuades you of his ideas but makes you think they were your ideas in the first place. Obviously, this level of diplomacy is no longer possible in the dispute over Gulf War II; maybe it never was possible. However, the Bush administration seems about to embark on the opposite of diplomacy—not only failing to persuade the other members of the council, but spitting in their faces, flicking them the finger, and storming off the playing field. Maybe Bush is in the right on this point. The French and Russian arguments against enforcing Resolution 1441 have been disingenuous, to say the least. However, it’s a very risky thing for the United States to say, “We are going to enforce the Security Council’s resolution by going to war” when a majority of the Security Council disputes our interpretation. Risky how? Not militarily. No one doubts that the United States could win a war against Iraq all by itself; in fact, too many allied forces would just get in the way. However, to forge a peace, facilitate a new regime, help build a new nation, and do so with widely recognized legitimacy—these sorts of tasks, at which the United States hasn’t been very good since the 1940s, require all the allies we can get, and it would help if these allies had (and felt they had) a stake in the outcome.

The French are proposing a very different resolution, which would extend weapons inspections for another four months, with an option to renew, and no definition of what constitutes compliance. This is the stuff of winks and nudges. First, no matter how uncooperative Saddam Hussein might become, nobody is going to go to war in the desert heat of July (which, of course, the French realize in setting such a timetable). For another, Saddam Hussein could keep tossing the council a few table scraps every month—a couple of missiles dismantled here, a few documents discovered there—and the French and Russians would celebrate the events as proof that the inspections are working while in fact nothing about his regime or weapons program or anything else would change (except perhaps for the worse).

There are now probably no circumstances under which France would vote for war. Yet there also seem to be no circumstances under which the United States would vote against it. Even if Bush ends up winning this contest, he can’t help but look bad in doing so. To be stubborn about resistance is seen as natural, even noble. (You could almost hear “La Marseillaise” wafting from the rafters toward the end of Dominique de Villepin’s speech, for peace, patience, and La France, at the Valentine’s Day session of the Security Council.) To be stubborn about going to war, however, is seen as the behavior of a bully.

Substantively, the Canadian proposal does not harm U.S. interests; putting off war another two weeks (the end of March instead of mid-March) will not hurt the mobilization. Diplomatically, the proposal gives the United States a chance to clean up its global image—which, whether justifiably or not, is terrible. It gives us at least the appearance of meeting the French halfway. More important, it puts us behind a proposal that belongs to an outside party. It makes it look like we’re going along with someone else, not just demanding that everyone go along with us. It endows us with an attitude of cooperation, which we will need reciprocated from others if the war, or peace, goes badly.