Why the U.S. Won't Declare War — Yet

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Chief United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix

UN arms inspections in Iraq are working for the Bush administration. Although Dr. Hans Blix told the Security Council on Monday that Baghdad had, for the most part, allowed inspectors prompt and free access to inspection sites, the bulk of his report-back consisted of a catalogue of troubling questions over weapons inventories that Iraq has thus far evaded, and instances where Iraqi cooperation has been less than forthcoming. Blix emphasized, as U.S. and British officials have for weeks, that the onus is on Iraq to prove its commitment to disarmament through active cooperation — and he left the Council in no doubt that Iraq has not yet done so. No conclusive evidence has yet emerged pointing either to disarmament or to continued prohibited programs, Blix said, but his overall message was that Iraq can do a lot better.

Short of finding a smoking gun, Blix's report couldn't have been better for U.S. efforts to win international consent for military action against Iraq. France, Germany, Russia and China remain unconvinced by U.S. allegations that Iraq represents an imminent danger, and oppose military action right now, insisting instead that the inspection process be given more time. Britain backs the U.S. position but the skepticism of the British electorate requires that Washington seek UN authorization for an attack. Iraq's Arab and Turkish neighbors oppose a war, but have resigned themselves to its inevitability and have put the onus on Baghdad to do what is necessary to avoid one. Allies have sought to restrain Washington by insisting that the inspection process be allowed to take its course. But Blix may have reinforced the Anglo-American position by emphasizing the issue of Iraqi cooperation over the issue of evidence, issuing a set of specific challenges that substantially raise the bar for Iraq to bring itself into compliance with Resolution 1441.

The fact that the U.S. and Britain have begun assembling a massive invasion armada capable of delivering the knockout blow to Saddam Hussein's regime has, of course, raised pressure on Washington to bring the inspection process to a speedy conclusion and move quickly to war.

Factors promoting a quick decision to invade include:

  • Weather: The optimal winter conditions for ground warfare in Iraq won't last beyond April
  • Scale of the deployments: The U.S. and Britain will struggle to maintain such a large force on standby in the region through the summer
  • Politics: Support for a war is beginning to ebb domestically and opposition abroad and at home is rapidly mounting — and both trends are more likely to grow rather than shrink the longer the decision is deferred
  • Economics: The prospect of war is having a profoundly negative effect on U.S. and world markets, and continuing uncertainty over Iraq dampens prospects for a U.S. recovery

    Even Secretary of State Colin Powell, long the standard-bearer of exhaustive diplomacy on Iraq, appeared late last week to have fallen in step with the hawks' timeline, despite having argued only two weeks ago that the inspectors needed a lot more time. Still, the U.S. looks unlikely to call a halt to inspections and move to military action in the wake of Blix's report. President Bush will likely use his State of the Union address Tuesday to amplify his argument that Saddam has failed to disarm and therefore made military action all but inevitable, but he is unlikely to use the speech as a platform for declaring war.

    Reasons for holding off, at least for a few more weeks, include:

  • The deployment timetable: The invasion armada will be at full-strength only sometime in March
  • The coalition: The U.S. and Britain remain relatively isolated in committing to war right now, and even Britain is urging that the inspectors be given more time and that the U.S. at least seek a Security Council resolution authorizing war — over 80 percent of Britons oppose participation in a war without UN authorization
  • The evidence: Weakening domestic support for war, and the resistance of the European allies to endorse action right now, is based in part on the failure of the Bush Administration thus far to set out a convincing case for war.
  • The inspections: Although the Bush administration has not managed to convince many European and Arab allies of its political case for going to war right now, Dr. Blix's report has helped make a case in legal terms that Security Council members may find increasingly difficult to resist.

    The Council convened following Blix's report for private consultations, and they are scheduled to meet again on Wednesday. President Bush meets with Britain's Tony Blair on Friday, where he'll reiterate his belief that Britain and the U.S. should allow a few more weeks of inspections, and then seek a Security Council resolution authorizing military action.

    Britain has, over the past two weeks, been urging the Bush administration to allow the inspection process to continue for a few more weeks, confident that ramping up the inspectors' activities will turn up significant evidence of prohibited programs. But even if it doesn't, the inspection report tees up the U.S. and Britain to issue an ultimatum: Blix's "can do better" can be relatively smoothly parlayed by Washington into "must do better within a month, or else." And unless Saddam complies, the Security Council may well be cajoled, however reluctantly, into passing a war resolution.