Why Bush Can't Muster an Iraq Coalition

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HANS OFF: Blix says disarmament is starting to work

Rather than answer some of the specific questions posed by reporters at his Thursday night press conference, President Bush stuck relentlessly to a series of familiar talking points about Iraq: Saddam Hussein has failed to disarm; he represents an imminent danger to America and its allies and the cost of inaction is greater than any risk posed by going to war; the world, and Iraq in particular, will be a better place without Saddam's regime. But given the timing of the press conference — on the eve of yet another presentation to the divided UN Security Council by chief weapons inspector Hans Blix — the key question he left unanswered was asked early on: Why do so many people around the world differ with Washington's view of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, and how to deal with it. Because it is that difference that has frustrated the administration's attempts to win UN authorization for an attack on Iraq.

The President spoke a day after France, Russia and Germany presented a united front vowing to stop any Security Council resolution authorizing war at this stage, and the same day as China backed the naysayers and Britain moved to amend the U.S. resolution in order to accommodate the skeptics' demand that inspections be given more time. Most accounts of President Bush's father's war against Saddam emphasize the masterful diplomacy of his coalition-building; whatever history's verdict on President Bush's own campaign against Saddam, it's unlikely to be remembered as a triumph of diplomacy. The U.S. military has proclaimed its invasion force ready for battle, and the air war has, in some senses, already begun over southern Iraq where policing the Anglo-American "no-fly" zone has come to include dramatically expanded attacks on weapons and communications systems that would confront any invading force. Still diplomatic resistance led by France, Russia and Germany has proved remarkably resilient, and even traditionally reliable Turkey — from whose territory the Anglo-American "no-fly" zone patrols are flown, and had been expected to host U.S. forces that would attack Iraq from the north — has not yet joined the war party. Washington has had to give up trying to convince potential allies of its case for war, and seek instead to leverage economic and other unrelated pressure points to compel some of the reluctant nations to supply basing rights or UN Security Council votes. Even then, it has been an uphill battle.

Of course Bush the elder had it easy. Iraq had invaded Kuwait and he simply had to convince everyone to apply the UN founding principle, upheld across ideological lines, outlawing any aggression that violated a country's sovereignty. Bush the younger is trying to convince them to violate Iraq's sovereignty to the extent of invading and occupying the country, on the grounds that Iraq has failed to destroy prohibited weapons that could be used in terror attacks. And that's not exactly a no-brainer for the Security Council.

The reason President Bush was out there in the visibly uncomfortable setting of a press conference is precisely that he knows that Blix plans to deliver yet another ambiguous report on Friday: Iraq has failed to cooperate to the extent demanded by Security Council Resolution 1441, but mounting pressure has produced important and encouraging moves towards complying, and inspections should be given more time and intensified. Blix will cite Iraq's destruction of a medium range missile that exceeds UN-imposed limits for Iraq, some unimpeded interviews with scientists and production of further evidence on chemical and biological programs. Bush and other administration officials have derided those as calculated deception to divide the international community. Nobody can argue, says the President, that Iraq has met its obligations — and he vowed to press for a vote at the Security Council next week on a resolution declaring Iraq in material breach of Resolution 1441, opening the way for military action.

But the Franco-Russian-German camp remain unmoved, with Russia and France even brandishing the threat of a veto. And the reason for their resistance is precisely because, as President Bush's questioner noted, they see the problem of Saddam's weapons in different terms. While they know Iraq has residual stocks of chemical and biological weapons left over from its war with Iran, they don't believe Saddam's regime is an imminent threat to its neighbors, much less to the West. Iraq's military is considerably weaker now than when it was driven out of Kuwait a decade ago, they argue, and it is unable even to keep hostile aircraft out of Iraqi airspace in the "no-fly" zones. And Bush administration efforts to posit a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda simply don't hold water with the European intelligence agencies. Saddam, in the minds of the Security Council antiwar bloc, is being effectively contained, while initiating a war in the Middle East is a greater risk to Western security.

So when Blix says Iraq is cooperating only to the extent that it feels compelled by the military buildup, the U.S. claims vindication of its view that Saddam has no real intention of disarming, and must therefore be forcibly removed. But the antiwar coalition at the Security Council sees the same report as evidence of the effectiveness of containment — that Saddam's behavior is being conditioned by the threat of force. Extending inspections and even setting new specific demands on Iraq, in this view, offers a chance of peacefully disarming Iraq, and functions as a deterrent on prohibited weapons programs.

Although the President vowed that "no matter what the whip count is, we're calling for the vote" at the Security Council, British reports suggest that a compromise may be in the works, via a British amendment to set new deadlines and new specific demands on Iraqi disarmament. That suggests that military action may be delayed, possibly until the end of March. But listening to President Bush's promises on everything from providing humanitarian assistance to Iraqi refugees to doing everything possible to avoid Iraqi civilian casualties, there could be little doubt that with or without UN authorization, he plans to oust Saddam Hussein.