Why Saddam Blinked (or at Least Winked)

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Iraqi parliament members vote against the U.N. resolution on weapons inspections

The UN ultimatum to Saddam Hussein was a fast track to war only if the Iraqi leader had been dumb enough to make Don Rumsfeld's day. But as Arab diplomats like to point out, Saddam may be homicidal but he's not suicidal — and there were few surprises Wednesday when Iraq announced its acceptance of the Security Council's terms for new arms inspections.

By complying with the UN resolution, Saddam could certainly make life difficult for Washington hawks set on an invasion to achieve regime change in Iraq — and strengthen the hand of those in the U.S., Europe and the Arab world opposed to war. Washington hawks are more than a little anxious at the extent to which the Bush Administration has been yoked to a UN inspection timetable that could, if Saddam avoids overt confrontation, drag matters on into next February, and even then not produce a definitive case for a UN-sanctioned war. The neo-conservative flagship Weekly Standard warns that absent any self-destructive instinct on Saddam's part, even 100 days from now the most likely outcome of the renewed inspection program will be sufficiently ambiguous to simply make a case for giving the inspectors even more time, further dissipating Washington's regime-change momentum.

If cooperation with the UN would confound U.S. war plans, it would appear to be a no-brainer for Saddam to simply give up on whatever weapons programs he currently has in the works in order to stay in power. Running an oil-rich country would give him plenty of resources to restart those programs once the heat is off. Still, there are domestic risks. Saddam's power is based his ability to paralyze potential domestic opponents with fear of the consequences of crossing him. Submitting to the will of the UN, goaded into action by Washington, signals Saddam's fundamental vulnerability — never a good idea for a regime based on fear. Power, after all, is less a thing than it is a relationship: He runs Iraq, in no small part, because people think he runs Iraq. Anything that signals limits on his ability to enforce his will may be a mortal danger to the Iraqi dictator, which is why submitting to the new arms inspections is far from easy even if Saddam could be relatively sure the inspectors won't find anything.

The previous inspection regime had allowed for Iraq to keep inspectors out of Saddam's palaces. Not the new one. Now, a dictator whose rule is premised on the idea of fearsome, unlimited power has to contend with the spectacle of being forced to open his front door at any hour of the night and allow his home to be searched by an unprepossessing, bespectacled 74-year-old Swedish diplomat and his team of arms inspectors. Iraqis could start getting ideas.

The ritual humiliation of arms inspections may not be the only factor weighing on Saddam's strategic calculations. He may truly believe that weapons of mass destruction are essential to his regime's survival. Chemical weapons became an integral part of Iraq's artillery arsenal during the war against Iran as the most effective defense against Iran's "human wave" infantry assaults. Saddam is also reportedly convinced that the reason U.S. troops didn't march on Baghdad in 1991 was fear of his unconventional arsenal.

Then again, it has also been made abundantly clear to Saddam that he has no choice. His stealthy resurgence in the decade following the Gulf War was achieved primarily by skillfully exploiting differences among his domestic and international enemies. That may be why the Arabs, Russia and France have taken great pains to drive home the message to Saddam that unless he accepts the UN resolution, a war that he cannot survive is inevitable. That leaves Saddam likely to opt, at least, to delay any confrontation by signaling compliance and then stringing out the process as much as possible to avoid provoking a U.S. attack and hoping that when the arms inspectors report back next February their mandate is simply extended.

The UN has given Saddam a week to decide a fundamental strategic course: How much of his unconventional arsenal does he want to keep? Should he continue to maintain that there is no such arsenal, and risk any exposure giving Washington a "smoking gun"? By accepting the resolution, he has given his government 30 days to come up with a comprehensive inventory of its weapons programs, and again, any substantial omissions will also provide Washington with grounds for war. It may be even harder to play the concealment game now, because after four years without inspections to monitor, Saddam's own intelligence services may have little idea of what the U.S. knows and what it doesn't know — and miscalculation, under the present circumstances, could be deadly.

There is no question that Saddam now faces the deepest crisis of his career. He has come back from the dead before, of course — a decade ago few U.S. officials would have believed they'd still be appearing on Sunday talk shows discussing Saddam Hussein in 2002. His attempts at diplomatic rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab states, and recent domestic initiatives such as his mass amnesty for Iraqi prisoners suggest he may be planning to further muddy the waters with more gestures of magnanimity toward his own people and the wider Arab world. But that's a risky business for a man who rules by fear. When he threw open the prisons last month, thousands of Iraqis celebrated their reunions with long-lost loved ones. But scores of others, whose relatives had simply disappeared, were moved to mount unprecedented acts of public protest. In his worst nightmares, Saddam may find himself agreeing to disarm in order to avoid a war, but in the process setting the stage for the internal collapse of his regime.