So President Bush on Thursday gave Iraq one last chance to comply with UN resolutions requiring that he end his weapons of mass destruction program and submit it to unfettered inspection. Striking a bellicose tone, the President warned Baghdad that complying fully with UN resolutions was its only hope for avoiding war.
Taking matters back to the UN, of course, was not the option favored by Administration hawks. Their reason: The international body is unlikely ever to sign on to the objective of "regime-change," given that non-interference in the internal affairs of nations is one of its founding principles. But the UN is committed, by its own resolutions, to destroying Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs and preventing their reemergence, and that commitment and Saddam's flagrant violations of his obligations looks set to become the "trigger" issue used by the Bush Administration to claim international legitimacy for any new attack on Iraq. Bush's speech challenged the UN to enforce its own resolutions, or surrender its credibility.
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Still, on the matter of Iraq's defiance of UN resolutions, Bush has a cast-iron case and he devoted much of his speech to cataloguing Saddam's multiple and continuing infractions. UN weapons inspectors were withdrawn in 1998 after their work was frustrated by Iraq, ahead of a four-day punitive bombing campaign by the U.S. and Britain. The inspectors have not been allowed back since, and the resulting standoff has seen the UN sanctions regime crumbling, while substantial components of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons programs remain unaccounted for. Thus President Bush's exhortation to the international body to tackle Saddam's "contempt for the UN."
Bush's repeated references to the credibility of the UN being on the line were clearly aimed at shaming the international body into enforcing its own writ. But that goal may be beyond the reach of an administration openly disdainful of international consensus on so many other issues. The administration's stance on issues ranging from the Kyoto protocol to the International Criminal Court have led even NATO allies to view the Bush Administration as a delinquent global citizen, and pro-Western Arab governments make the argument that when the unconventionally-armed country defying U.N. resolutions is Israel, the U.S. responds with a nod and a wink.
But even if he can't shame them into action, President Bush may well manage to scare them his "if Iraq wants to avoid war" mantra was an unmistakable warning that if the UN can't stop Saddam's scofflaw pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, Washington is more than ready to do so alone. And what the European and Arab allies want more than anything else is to avoid a war whose consequences they fear will be more devastating than any threat posed by Saddam right now. It is fear of what the U.S. may do that has galvanized France, Russia and Arab regimes to press Baghdad urgently to readmit weapons inspectors.
But the UN route to action on Iraq raises a strategic dilemma for the Bush administration: Is the U.S. prepared to accept yes for answer? The Administration plans to call for a toughly worded Security Council resolution setting an ultimatum for the return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq, and authorizing the use of force in response if Baghdad fails to comply. But if Saddam submits to inspection in order to avoid war, he potentially buys himself time and muddies the waters of legitimacy even if he plans to resume his cat-and-mouse game with inspectors. This is precisely the scenario Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney have been determined to avoid. Yet to insist, as they have done, that inspections won't remove the need to oust Saddam carries the risk of undermining the sincerity of Bush's appeal to the UN to enforce its own rules after all, Washington won't be able to sustain the argument that Saddam was given a last chance to comply if he was also being told that he's toast even if he does. The U.S. may try to make the inspection regime as unpalatable as possible to Saddam, with the consequences of defiance swift and deadly, but it is likely nonetheless to offer Iraq a final opportunity to mend its ways. The decision, then, on whether or not the U.S. goes to war in Iraq in the coming months may soon rest principally with Saddam Hussein.