How Bush Hopes to Pin Saddam

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Rumsfeld waits to testify on Iraq before the House Armed Services Committee

They may not yet be at war, but President Bush and Saddam Hussein are already locked in a battle for time. The President is cracking the whip, trying to force the pace of a showdown. The reason: if he is to launch a full-blown invasion of Iraq by January — which is as early as the logistics of moving U.S. armed forces into the region will permit — he has only a matter of weeks to secure the requisite political decisions. And the Iraqi dictator is doing his best to slow things down, proclaiming his intention to abide by UN writ in order to deny the U.S. a "trigger" for war.

The White House plans to send Congress a draft resolution Thursday authorizing an attack on Iraq if the President concludes that current diplomatic efforts won't satisfy U.S. demands on Baghdad's weapons. This follows Monday's offer by Iraq to allow new UN weapons inspections that has once again split the veto-wielding permanent members of the UN security council — pitting the U.S. and Britain against France, Russia and China — and made UN authorization of a U.S. military strike unlikely any time soon.

Saddam's timing may have disrupted the White House's efforts to build a coalition for war on the basis of Iraq's continued defiance of UN disarmament resolutions. War-wary allies in Europe and the Arab world had moved closer to the U.S. position following President Bush's UN speech a week ago in which he shifted the onus for avoiding war onto Baghdad by demanding that Saddam be forced to comply with UN resolutions he has routinely defied over the past decade. The administration may have expected Saddam to eventually cave in on the inspection issue, but not this quickly. If Baghdad had, as many expected, hedged and tried to set unacceptable preconditions for complying with UN demands, Washington would have maintained the diplomatic momentum to translate the consensus for demanding Iraqi compliance into support for an invasion. Instead, the dictator heeded the advice of Washington's Arab allies whose priority remains avoiding a war, and offered immediately to accommodate the UN.

The Bush administration has dismissed Saddam's offer as a ploy designed to avoid a military strike rather than a signal of penitence and resolve to become a global citizen in good standing. Saddam's track record certainly supports Washington's skepticism, but most of the Europeans and the Arabs fear the consequences of a U.S.-Iraq more than they fear Saddam's regime, and they'll insist on taking Iraq's offer as an opportunity to address Iraq's weapons programs through renewed inspections. After all, they don't share the U.S. policy of regime-change, and appear to ready to live with a more forceful application of arms control.

That leaves the U.S. scrambling to maintain international pressure on Saddam, even as talks are underway over practical arrangements for new arms inspections. The immediate goal of U.S. diplomacy will be to define a new inspection regime according to tough and non-negotiable ultimatums laid out in a new Security Council resolution. Russia insists there's no need for any new resolution, but France may be more inclined to accept one that unambiguously defines what is expected — although it is reluctant to authorize the use of force before the Council itself has concluded that Iraq is failing to comply with a new ultimatum.

But even if Baghdad's letter has changed the diplomatic calculus, it hasn't deterred U.S. war preparations. The Bush Administration's purpose throughout the current political-diplomatic campaign on Iraq has been to build support for a war to oust Saddam. Referring Iraq's defiance of UN resolutions back to the international body and setting a new ultimatum was a "trigger" strategy, designed to ensure maximum international consent for a war the Administration appears to believe is inevitable. The Administration has been mindful of the danger of getting bogged down in a lengthy new round of arms inspections that both delay the march to war and, key Administration officials insist, are a fundamentally inadequate safeguard against Saddam's weapons of mass destruction ambitions. So even as Secretary of State Colin Powell continues to arm-wrestle his counterparts at the UN, Washington's war plans continue to unfold — from seeking a congressional green light for action to stepped up U.S.-British bombing of Iraqi air defense systems and reported moves to shift heavy U.S. bomber aircraft closer to the Gulf.

In recent days, the President and some of his top aides also appear to have been making the case to the American public that going to war is the only valid response to a mounting and mortal danger. Bush has poured scorn on the idea of Saddam ever coming into compliance with UN resolutions, insisted that Congress declare its support for a war and warned the United Nations that it faces a choice between authorizing military action against Iraq, and geopolitical oblivion. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld on Wednesday told Congress that "no terrorist state poses a greater and more immediate threat to the security of our people and the stability of the world than the regime of Saddam Hussein." Such language gives the administration little room for retreat from the warpath.

A renewed inspection regime, authorized according to strict guidelines in a new Security Council resolution still offers the U.S. plenty of triggers for war. The Iraqis have their own idea of "unconditional" inspections, and hope to return simply to the pre-1998 status quo — a prospect flatly rejected by Washington, and also by the Europeans. It remains to be seen whether Baghdad will seek to continue preventing inspections of Saddam's palaces and other politically sensitive sites, or to blacklist inspectors believed to be spying for the U.S. Russia and Iraq's Arab neighbors will likely be doing their utmost to persuade Saddam that he has no alternative but to swallow whatever the UN demands. The Iraqi leader's own instinct will to use any discord between the U.S. and its allies to push back and play for time. And President Bush will be waiting — and not necessarily patiently — for Saddam to make his day.