Can Bush Accept Saddam's Offer?

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U.N. Photo/Markl Garten

Deal: Kofi Annan announces that Iraq will allow inspectors back in

Saddam Hussein may be many things, but he's not stupid. That much was clear from his timely and unconditional surrender on Monday to the demand that Iraq readmit UN weapons inspectors and allow them to search, unfettered, for weapons of mass destruction. In a letter sent to the UN Security Council, whose members are at work on a resolution demanding that Iraq submit to new inspections or face the consequences, the government of Iraq announced it would accept inspections "without conditions" and was ready to begin immediately discussing the practical arrangements for the inspectors' return. The White House was skeptical of the offer, warning that Baghdad was trying to evade strong UN action. Washington's skepticism is hardly surprising, not only because of Saddam's long history of cat-and-mouse defiance of the UN on disarmament issues, but also because the Bush Administration's ultimate objective is not to bring Saddam into compliance with Security Council resolutions, but to win international consent for a military campaign to oust his regime. If his offer to cooperate is perceived as genuine, Saddam undermines the case for war.

On one level, Baghdad's acquiescence is a dramatic victory for Washington: President Bush demanded last Thursday that Iraq be forced to comply with its obligations to the international community if it hoped to avoid war; Baghdad-sympathetic countries on the Security Council and in the Arab World immediately backed that demand and made clear to Baghdad that continued defiance would see Iraq's regime obliterated; and within four days of President Bush's speech Saddam had cried uncle. But he may have been smiling as he did so.

The reason? Readmitting the inspectors is the natural play for Saddam precisely because while the international community will back the Bush Administration's position on weapons inspection, most countries in the region want to avoid a war which they believe poses more danger to the region than Saddam does. And there's still little support for the Bush Administration's policy of regime change in Iraq irrespective of how Baghdad reacts on the arms-inspection issue. Saddam may have been relying on the fact that Washington's policy of regime change in Baghdad has won very little international support, but last week it was the Iraqi dictator who found himself isolated in his defiance of the UN on disarmament issues.

France and Saudi Arabia have strongly opposed the U.S. launching a war for regime change, but they conspicuously backed the Bush Administration's position at the UN — Saddam must submit immediately to inspections, or else. This was a clear message to Baghdad that nobody would restrain the U.S. if Iraq remains outside of the law on weapons of mass destruction. But whereas the hawks in Washington may have been hoping that Saddam makes their day by rejecting any such ultimatum, most of the allies that signed on to the U.S. position at the UN in recent days have clearly been doing their utmost to persuade Saddam to submit. Even Britain, Washington's closest ally on Iraq, appeared to favor a peaceful resolution. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Monday that there was "wide consensus ? about the need for resolute action to be taken against Iraq — hopefully by peaceful means — to ensure their compliance with the will of the international community." And the "will of the international community," as expressed through UN resolutions, is that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, rather than its current government, be eliminated.

By agreeing unconditionally to new inspections, Saddam clearly hopes to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its European and Arab allies. And also, perhaps, between those on Capitol Hill who accept regime change as a reason for going to war, and those who would support military action only as a last resort if Iraq continues to reject inspections.

The Bush Administration's instinct is to cast doubt on the sincerity of Saddam's offer, and cite his well-documented history of denial, deception, obstruction and defiance as reason to see it as nothing more than a fake-out. That may very well be true. Still, having demanded that Iraq accept immediate, unconditional and unfettered arms inspections, the Bush Administration can't easily afford to flatly reject a "yes" answer from Baghdad if it hopes to win international consent for a military campaign.

The White House had to have factored in the possibility of Saddam submitting to inspections when it first took the matter back to the UN — administration hawks such as Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had long warned that reviving the inspection regime could prove a dangerous distraction to the Administration's efforts to get rid of the regime in Baghdad. Yet without going the UN route first, even the loyal Tony Blair might not have been able to sustain his support for a war in the face of overwhelming domestic opposition.

The Bush administration's immediate response will be to persist in crafting a strong UN Security Council resolution demanding Iraqi compliance with various previous resolutions, and threatening military action as the price for defiance. But Saddam's letter has given Russia, France, the Saudis, Egypt and other European and Arab allies looking to avoid a war something to work with.

In the coming days, the debate at the UN will continue to focus on what will be demanded of the Iraqis now, and how such demands will be enforced. Mindful of the danger of losing momentum, the Bush Administration will work to ensure that Saddam be presented with the most unpalatable possible inspection regime backed by the immediate threat of force. But Monday's letter suggests that Saddam's game plan is to signal compliance on arms inspections in the hope of isolating Washington on regime change. When the Bush Administration took the Iraq issue to the UN it signaled that Saddam Hussein was being given a final chance to comply with the international community's demands. Saddam's response suggests that this final chance may be taken as far as actually sending arms inspectors back into Iraq to test Baghdad on its word, even as U.S. preparations for war continue unabated.