Is Saddam a Menace or a Nuisance?

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ALLIES: Blair has made the case before Britain's House of Commons, but will other European nations agree?

Despite the tough talk, the Bush administration needs its war in Iraq to be authorized by the UN Security Council. That much is a basic requirement for crucial allies ranging from Britain to Turkey, and will be even more important in managing a potentially chaotic post-Saddam Iraq — the proverbial "hard part" of any war, the administration is staying the course with a diplomatic process that could continue into next month. The U.S and Britain are currently working on a new resolution to presented to the Security Council, possibly later this week. But reports indicate that this resolution will stop short of authorizing military action, instead repeating the threat of "serious consequences" and possibly issue an ultimatum to Baghdad to meet specific demands in a prescribed time-frame. The diplomatic going may be tougher than ever, however, with last weekend's antiwar demonstrations that drew some 6 million people into the streets of Europe stiffening the spine of the war-wary Security Council members.

He may have meant it somewhat sarcastically, but President Bush revealed the essential problem facing his administration's diplomatic efforts in his comments Tuesday on last weekend's peace marches that drew millions across the world: "Some in the world don't view Saddam Hussein as a risk to peace," the President said. "I respectfully disagree." Washington's efforts to win UN Security Council backing for war in Iraq are based on demonstrating that Baghdad has failed to comply with disarmament undertakings, but that may not be enough — precisely for the reason cited by Bush: At the heart of the dispute between the camp led by the U.S. and Britain and the group led by France, Russia and Germany is a sharply divergent view of the nature and scale of any threat posed by Saddam Hussein, and therefore also over the appropriate penalties. There is little argument in the Security Council over whether or not Baghdad is in breach of many of its disarmament obligations. But while President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair insist that Saddam is hell-bent on stockpiling non-conventional weapons and will inevitably share them with al-Qaeda, the antiwar Europeans see him less as a rising menace than as an incorrigible nuisance who has nonetheless been left substantially weaker by a decade of containment than he was when his armies were soundly thrashed in the sands of Kuwait. The two camps would easily agree that Iraq has failed to account for that proportion of his prohibited weapons not destroyed by UN inspectors in the early 1990s, but the "old" Europeans are skeptical on Anglo-American claims about an Iraqi nuclear program, and dismissive of Washington's efforts to prove a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. So, while for Blair and Bush the greatest danger is doing nothing about Saddam, their opponents see the remedy of a U.S.-led invasion and occupation as posing far more danger to the region and even, ultimately, the West than any threat currently posed by the regime in Baghdad.

The battle at the UN is not simply about evidence, but on the meaning assigned to such evidence. For example, UN inspectors have established that Iraq's al-Samoud missiles violate the 93-mile limit for Iraqi missiles set by the UN after the Gulf War. But by no more than 30 miles. A "very serious" matter said Blair, but not the sort of violation that was going to persuade the Europeans to support a war. The Europeans opposing the war know that Saddam has failed to account for some of the chemical and biological weapons stocks he amassed (and, in the case of chemical munitions, used) during the Iran-Iraq war. But they don't tend to see that violation as grounds for war.

The response from Turkey is instructive: Ankara has indicated that it would support a war only if the U.S. coughs up more than $30 billion in financial aid to Turkey, and gets UN authorization to assuage the country's overwhelmingly antiwar public opinion. The Turks have also insisted that the price tag for allowing the U.S. to mount an invasion from their territory includes Turkey's right to protect its own interests in Northern Iraq, where it may be on a collision course with local Kurdish leaders. Turkey is unconvinced by the case for war, but will make practical arrangements to secure its interests once war becomes inevitable.

Key Security Council allies, like Britain, Spain and Bulgaria, may be more convinced of the Bush administration's political case, but they find themselves swimming against the tide of European public opinion and are showing little sign of convincing the antiwar camp. Until now, Washington may have been hoping that the specter of the U.S. rendering the UN irrelevant by acting alone outside of a UN mandate might force the likes of France and Russia to reconsider. But the European antiwar camp appears to be more fearful of the UN becoming irrelevant if it simply rubber-stamps a U.S. policy of which most remain unconvinced. But the question of whether or not the Bush administration gets the nod from the UN Security Council to go to war in Iraq may, right now, depend less on the evidence than on the outcome of the political debate that underlies the dispute over what the inspectors have found and what they might have missed.