Why Bush Can't Rush to Invade Iraq

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WILLIAM PHILPOTT/REUTERS

Rumsfeld talks missile defense at the Pentagon

Saddam Hussein has flunked his last chance to disarm peacefully, according to the Bush Administration. But that's not to say the time has come to declare war, say Administration officials. Today the U.S. will declare that Iraq's declaration on weapons of mass destruction fails to live up to its undertaking to provide a full and accurate account of its stocks and programs, as required by UN Security Council Resolution 1441. But it won't use that failure as grounds to reconvene the Security Council and declare Iraq in "material breach" of the resolution in order to set in motion the "serious consequences" of which the resolution warns — because the UN isn't ready to back up that interpretation, and that would impact negatively on American public support for going to war.

Most of the Security Council is unlikely to agree that an incomplete declaration is, in itself, a basis for triggering a war, and they'd insist that the falsehoods that Britain and the U.S. allege the declaration contains must be verified by the UNMOVIC weapons inspection teams currently in Iraq. Although UNMOVIC chief Dr. Hans Blix is due to make a preliminary assessment of Iraq's declaration at a Security Council session today, UN officials are stressing the preliminary nature of that discussion and warning that no action should be expected from the session. UNMOVIC is scheduled on January 27 to make a comprehensive report of Iraq's compliance or otherwise with Resolution 1441, and U.S. and British officials have indicated that they're prepared to go along with the process — for now.

To be sure, the Bush Administration loses little by indulging the UN process even as U.S. officials constantly remind the public of Washington's view that Saddam is lying and cheating. Preparations for war continue; Pentagon officials have told CNN they plan to raise troop levels around Iraq to 100,000 in January, and the U.S. is actively pursuing basing rights and commitments in the region. Britain has made plans to begin moving up to 40,000 troops to the region. Among the power players, the focus of discussion is no longer the question of whether or not to go to war, but how to wage it and how a post-Saddam order in Iraq should be constituted. On both fronts there are significant debates: Will air strikes combined with special forces attacks and mobile units seizing ground in Iraq to create staging areas for larger deployments be enough to force Saddam's own army to overthrow him, or should the U.S. assume the need to mount a full-blown invasion and occupation? Should the U.S. hand over power to Iraq's traditionally fractious exiled opposition, or should the U.S. military itself run Iraq until such time as an Iraqi civilian authority capable of stabilizing the country emerges? And so on.

While most of the Security Council may be unlikely to endorse a war as long as Saddam continues to cooperate with inspections and meets specific demands from UNMOVIC, a war is taking shape nonetheless. But it's not only the international community that has qualms. Opinion polls in the U.S. find a strong preference among a majority of the electorate for any attack on Iraq to be authorized by the international community. Two thirds of respondents in a Los Angeles poll published on Sunday seemed to be closer to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan than to President Bush in maintaining that a war would be justified only if the United Nations found a repeated pattern of serious violations by Iraq. And some 72 percent felt Bush had not yet laid out convincing evidence of Saddam maintaining prohibited weapons programs. Of even greater concern to the Administration may the fact that the LA Times poll found support for an invasion had fallen since the paper's last poll taken in August.

Although the Bush Administration was given carte blanche by Congress last fall to invade Iraq at its discretion, its domestic political calculations still have to factor in a public not yet convinced. Not that convincing them will necessarily be very difficult — after all, other polls have found that a solid majority of Americans believe Saddam Hussein had a hand in the September 11 attacks, despite the absence of evidence to that effect. But given domestic concerns and the absence of international consensus over invading Iraq, continuing the UN process while slowly building a case against Saddam — at least in the court of U.S. public opinion, and as far as possible among allies — may be the Administration's most effective strategy for building support for going to war some time next year.