What If Iraq Cooperates?

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U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte, left, arrives for a U.N. security council meeting with an observer of the Arab League and the Russian Ambassador

Seven weeks of arm wrestling at the UN Security Council ended Friday with a unanimous resolution setting tough terms for Iraqi disarmament, and warning of severe consequences for continued defiance. And while the Bush Administration will claim a diplomatic victory, those governments who don't share Washington's goal of "regime change" — a list that includes most U.S. allies in Europe and the Arab world — will be satisfied that Saddam Hussein is being given a credible final chance to avoid a war by disarming.

France and Russia dropped their opposition to the U.S.-sponsored text once they were satisfied that the resolution is not simply a trigger-mechanism for invasion. And even Syria, against expectations, added its vote to the resolution, suggesting that Arab League member states who have opposed an attack on Iraq are signaling Saddam that Iraqi disarmament as the only way to avoid war.

Although most of Washington's European and Arab allies fear the consequences of a war will be more dangerous than any peril represented by Saddam Hussein, they could not contest the Bush Administration's insistence that Saddam's continued defiance of UN disarmament demands is intolerable. Although the President has been unable to win significant international support for his regime change policy, he has succeeded in forging an international consensus behind an ultimatum, backed by a threat of force, demanding that Baghdad surrender its weapons of mass destruction. That leaves the question of war or peace principally in the hands of Saddam Hussein.

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Giving Saddam one final chance to disarm was precisely the objective of those who most wanted to avoid war. If Saddam complies, Washington's primary casus belli is neutralized. If he refuses, even the allies most squeamish about being associated with a U.S.-led invasion will be able to show that they did everything possible to avoid a war, and that it was Saddam, rather than Washington, that chose to settle matters on the battlefield.

But the UN resolution — and the strong mandate President Bush received at the polls on Tuesday — reopens the question of the Administration's fundamental goal in Iraq. For the hawks led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the objective is to get rid of Saddam's regime, and reviving the UN arms inspection regime had been viewed at best as an inadequate guarantee of disarmament, and at worst a dangerous distraction from the task at hand. But they were convinced to take the matter back to the UN as a means of securing international support and legitimacy for a military campaign. Based on the premise that Saddam would never voluntarily relinquish his weapons of mass destruction, the assumption was that a new inspection ultimatum would create a trigger mechanism for an internationally sanctioned war, on terms that would satisfy nervous Europeans, Arabs and even Americans.

For the Administration's doves, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, the key U.S. objective in the current standoff is disarmament. They believe a new ultimatum on weapons of mass destruction that gives Baghdad no wiggle room and is backed up by an absolutely credible military threat offers the best chance of peacefully disarming Iraq. Last month, Powell even suggested that full compliance with UN terms would in itself constitute regime change because that would signal Saddam's regime had fundamentally altered its ways.

Saddam knows full well that his regime will never survive an American onslaught. The Iraqi dictator's primary concern has always been maintaining his grip on power, and for that reason diplomats throughout the Middle East believe he will likely do everything he can to avoid an invasion. Saddam has spent the past year assiduously courting Washington's Arab allies in the hope of persuading erstwhile enemies against siding with the U.S. Most of those regimes have come out against a new war, but they've also made clear to Baghdad that avoiding one will depend on Saddam complying with UN requirements.

Moreover, while Saddam may have sensed some wiggle room in the past from an ambiguous Clinton Administration and a divided Security Council, the Bush Administration has left little doubt of its willingness to blow Saddam's regime away. And that gives the Iraqi leader considerable incentive to comply with disarmament demands — or at least to signal that he will. Not that there'll be any genuine turnabout on Saddam's part, but he could quite conceivably recognize that he has nothing to gain and everything to lose right now by adopting a belligerent position.

Saddam's strategic game has always been to see how much he can get away with from the international community, whether it be invading Kuwait or barring weapons inspectors. This time, Bush has warned that Saddam has no wiggle room at all. The Iraqi dictator has, of course, miscalculated in the past, with disastrous effect in the case of Kuwait. But the tone of Baghdad's response in recent weeks suggests Saddam will move to defuse the crisis by signaling compliance and cooperation and deferring any confrontation.

The extent to which he's prepared to allow unfettered inspection and disarmament remains to be seen. It will soon be tested by the return of the inspectors, and Washington will be hoping to point them to sensitive weapons sites from the get-go. If Saddam stonewalls at the palace gates, the next steps are clear — the Security Council reconvenes, but President Bush quickly orders his military to launch Operation Regime Change. Less clear is what happens if the Iraqis comply with the UN resolution and string the inspection process along by avoiding any actions that could be construed as obstruction. Because that won't signal that the regime has changed its ways; it will simply be the same old Saddam Hussein doing what he knows he has to do in order to stay in power.