The White House is reserving judgment until it has fully reviewed the weapons declaration that Iraq delivered last weekend to the United Nations. But analysts in Washington say the declaration itself may provide the United States with its best case for war.
Washington, 10 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- If U.S. President George W. Bush wants "regime change" in Iraq, analysts say Saddam Hussein may have just given him a golden opportunity.
One day ahead of a United Nations deadline, Iraq on Saturday turned in a 12,000-page declaration of its nuclear-, chemical-, and biological-weapons programs. Iraq said it has no such arms, only "dual-use" civilian goods that could be put to military use.
The White House, which says it has proof of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, said yesterday that it is withholding judgment until it has studied the Iraq dossier, which is also being examined by the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council.
But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer suggested Washington has little confidence that Iraq's report complies with UN demands. "The history of Iraq is unquestionably that they lie. They've lied to the United States. They've lied to the United Nations. They've lied to the inspectors. The question now is what is contained in this voluminous declaration that they've submitted. And the answer to that is: We don't yet know," Fleischer said.
Fleischer would not say when that answer might come. But analysts agree that Bush's response may determine whether there will be war against Iraq early next year, which for climate reasons is considered the ideal time to fight in the Persian Gulf region.
The options for Bush, analysts say, are basically two. Bush can decide that Iraq's report alone is in "material breach," i.e., violates, UN resolutions on Iraqi disarmament. Or Bush can point to inaccuracies and other problems in the dossier, which would in effect allow the inspectors to keep working in a process that could take a year and dash any hope for an imminent attack on Iraq.
Martin Indyk, a top U.S. expert on the Middle East, is a former senior State Department official and ambassador to Israel. Now with the Brookings Institution policy center in Washington, Indyk told reporters yesterday that if Bush wants "regime change" in Iraq, drawing out the inspection process will only work against him.
Indyk said that besides missing the winter "window" for waging war in acceptable temperatures, drawn-out inspections revealing no wrongdoing will only help convince people and governments around the world that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction. "There are certainly many in the international community that would be prepared to give Iraq the benefit of the doubt. And the overall [Iraqi] approach is to play out the clock through cooperation in order to convince more and more people that he [Hussein] really doesn't have weapons of mass destruction, while putting the onus on the United States to try to prove that he does," Indyk said.
Indyk said such a scenario would make it hard for Bush to build a coalition of willing countries -- as he has spoken of -- to wage war on Iraq. "What he [Hussein] is doing is, in effect, sucking us into the inspections trap where we claim he has [weapons of mass destruction], but we can't prove it," Indyk said.
Kenneth Pollack was director for Persian Gulf affairs at the White House National Security Council from 1999 to 2001. Pollack, now a fellow at the private Council on Foreign Relations, said that contrary to its tough words, Washington may not be able to prove Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. "I certainly hope that the administration has some 'smoking-gun' evidence that they are holding back on all of us that will allow them to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt [that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction]. But I note that the body language from the administration is suggesting otherwise," Pollack said.
"The New York Times" yesterday reported that administration officials acknowledge they have no single piece of dramatic intelligence that could prove Iraq has continued to develop weapons of mass destruction.
U.S. Senator Bob Graham, the outgoing head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he has seen no definitive evidence.
Pollack said that may be one reason why the administration "hawks," led by Vice President Dick Cheney, would like to declare Iraq's weapons declaration itself as being in "material breach" of UN demands.
One basis for such a declaration could be that Iraq's report offers no new evidence proving that it has destroyed all its biological and chemical arms. Iraq has acknowledged it made a mistake by trashing its records of past weapons destruction. Both Washington and the UN had demanded that Iraq include such evidence in its declaration.
Still, Pollack said administration "doves," led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, are likely to argue for letting the inspectors continue in hopes they will find something compromising or that Hussein will make a big mistake.
Pollack, a Democrat whose recently published book "The Threatening Storm" argues for invading Iraq, said he believes that Bush himself has still not decided which approach to take.
Pollack himself, however, believes inspections will only play in Hussein's favor. "Hope is not a plan. This is a policy based on hope [that something will be found], and it is highly unlikely to succeed. And the world's only remaining superpower shouldn't be making policy based purely on hope," Pollack said.
But Washington may, in fact, have a middle road -- at least for now.
Pollack said Washington can pressure the inspectors to act more aggressively to help find a pretext for war, such as spiriting out of the country Iraqi scientists who may have compromising data on weapons programs. The latest UN resolution on disarmament authorizes such action.
Pollack said he expects the administration to make the case to both UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix that aggressive inspections are a "win-win" situation for both the world body and Washington. "If you don't act in that kind of aggressive fashion, if you don't exercise all of your authorities, it's a 'lose-lose' [situation] for both of us, because we're not going to wind up going to war with the same authority that we'd like to have. And you're going to wind up looking feckless, weak, and like you basically allowed this to happen," Pollack said.
Fleischer said yesterday that the United States is trying to help the inspectors work as effectively as possible and would begin to share intelligence with them. But he added some information would have to be withheld to protect U.S. sources.
If the Bush administration does decide to declare the Iraqi dossier to be in material breach, a key question will be how the White House times its statement to the United States and world public.
Some analysts speculate that the United States will refrain from declaring any "material breach" for four to five weeks. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, it will work to persuade allies of its case and to join in a coalition to oust Hussein with military force.
Then, backed up by sufficient international support, Washington will make its announcement.