Why the U.S. Isn't Rushing to War — Yet

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Rumsfeld talks missile defense at the Pentagon

The gaps in Iraq's weapons disclosure put it in "material breach" of UN Security Council Resolution 1441, says Washington. Yet the Bush Administration refrained Thursday from seeking UN endorsement of that view, and triggering an invasion of Iraq. Chief UN weapons inspector Dr. Hans Blix told the Council that Iraq's declaration contained little new information about its weapons programs and left key questions unanswered, and Secretary of State Colin Powell warned that Baghdad had failed "to move us in the direction of a peaceful resolution." But instead of demanding Security Council support for going to war, Powell emphasized the need to intensify inspection activity — guided by intelligence on Iraqi programs from the U.S. and other powers — and for UN inspectors to interview Iraqi scientists outside of Iraq in order to allow them to speak freely of Saddam's weapons programs. The Administration continues to hope that inspections can provide incontrovertible proof of U.S. allegations that Saddam continues to harbor and develop prohibited weapons. UN officials, for their part, have said the U.S. and Britain have not yet provided the intelligence that could point inspectors to locations, documents or individuals that could corroborate the allegation that Saddam is lying.

Proof of Iraqi cheating, of course, remains a central concern of American voters, along with a desire to see UN backing for any attack on Iraq. A TIME/CNN poll released Thursday found that 66 percent of Americans believe the U.S. should not invade Iraq without first offering proof that Baghdad is producing weapons of mass destruction. And in the event of the U.S. offering its own proof in the event that the UN inspectors find nothing, 54 percent supported an invasion while 38 percent opposed it. Those figures tack with a poll released this week by the LA Times, which found that 72 percent of Americans believe the Bush administration has not yet provided the evidence that would justify going to war in Iraq.

Those surveyed in the poll also appear to have a more positive view of the United Nations and its arms inspectors than do the more hawkish elements of the Bush Administration — 67 percent of respondents approved of the job UNMOVIC is doing in probing for weapons in Iraq. Despite the Administration reserving the right to strike unilaterally, 50 percent of respondents said that even if Saddam obstructed weapons inspections, the U.S. should not invade without UN authorization, whereas only 31 percent said Washington should launch an immediate invasion in the event of Iraqi non-compliance.

Thursday's Security Council briefing was simply an update from Dr. Blix, and his team is due to make its preliminary assessment of Iraqi compliance with on January 27. The Bush Administration would have had little chance of convincing the Security Council right now that an incomplete declaration by Iraq was enough to trigger a war — after all, the Iraqis have not impeded the work of UNMOVIC and the inspectors have not reported finding any signs of prohibited weapons activity. The Council's response to an incomplete declaration may well be simply to urge UNMOVIC to seek answers to specific unanswered questions, such as where, when and how Iraq supposedly destroyed its massive anthrax stocks.

So pressing the inspectors to intensify their efforts and assisting them with intelligence that may point them to forensic and oral evidence of Iraqi weapons programs may well be the smart way for Washington to go, right 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.

Regardless of the state of the UN inspection process, a war is already taking shape. Indeed, 63 percent of respondents to the TIME/CNN poll indicated a belief that war is inevitable. But given the concerns expressed by American voters 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.