Just as no self-respecting teacher would accept this lamest of excuses, so the U.N. Security Council surely will not accept the pathetic explanations that are being served up by Iraq's representatives to the United Nations. So, why exactly is it that the Iraqi government cannot prove what happened to those tons and tons of bacteriological and nerve-gas agents that it produced in the 1980s and had promised to destroy a decade ago after the Gulf War?
A most interesting line of argument was offered by Gen. Amir Saadi, allegedly a top adviser to Saddam, though it's hard to imagine the Iraqi dictator taking advice from anybody. Iraq was so eager to destroy not just the forbidden compounds, so Gen. Saadi stated on Sunday as he delivered the much-anticipated weapons of mass destruction (WMD) report mandated by U.N. Security Council resolution, that it also got rid of all the documentation that this had been done.
Iraq's biological weapons program "was totally and completely removed before the inspectors arrived in Iraq," he said with a straight face. "When you remove something completely, it no longer exists, and if you want to do it properly, you also remove all the evidence that it ever existed. That's what we did." Now, of course, the Iraqis realize "retrospectively, it was a mistake." Oops.
Even Hans Blix, the ever-so-polite Swedish head of the U.N. arms inspections team in Iraq, has expressed some skepticism about Iraqi assertions that no trace of evidence has been left behind. "The production of mustard gas is not like marmalade," he stated reasonably enough last month. "You have to keep some records."
As though these assertions were not absurd enough in themselves, it took the Iraqi government 12,000 pages to say what could be stated in one sentence, that it claims to have no weapons of mass destruction. It has to take weeks, at least, for Arabic experts to translate all this stuff.
It will be up to U.N. inspectors led by Mr. Blix to match the content of those 12,000 pages with evidence on the ground. Judging by past performance on the part of Iraqis and U.N. inspectors alike, prospects for uncovering truth are not good.
From 1991 to 1998, Saddam thwarted one arms inspection team after another, dispatched by the U.N. Special Commission, UNSCOM. (In 1998, he threw them out for good, and had blocked their return until a few weeks ago.) Though obligated by U.N. Security Council Resolution 687 to declare its stockpiles of WMD and ballistic missiles with a range of more than 150 kilometers, Iraq initially denied the existence of most just about everything.
It took until 1995 for inspectors to locate the evidence that forced Iraq to admit the existence of its biological weapons program. Likewise, Iraq denied for years that it had been working on nuclear weapons, despite the fact that U.N. inspectors had uncovered the payroll ledger of 20,000 Iraqis working on that very program. At least half-a-dozen Iraqi security agencies are devoted to the task of hiding incriminating evidence and leading inspectors astray.
After what will no doubt be another round of deceit and obstructionism toward the new inspections regime, the five veto-holding members of the U.N. Security Council must decide what to do. It is overwhelmingly likely that they will not agree. Russia, for one, has pre-emptively declared itself pleased with Iraq's production of this veritable snowstorm of documents.
At the end of the day, the Bush administration still may have to decide on its own whether to initiate military action, which it seems clear now that the administration is preparing to do. But time is on Saddam's side, and he is gambling on it.
The ideal time for an attack is January or February, as will be recalled from the first Gulf War, when Operation Desert Storm commenced in February. By March or April, the weather in the desert becomes insufferably hot, with temperatures up to 130 degrees Farenheit. So, the window of opportunity for an attack is small.
All of which leaves the Bush administration in a bit of a bind. What if the other members of the Security Council declare themselves satisfied with the Iraqi report and do not approve military action? Now would be a good time for Secretary of State Colin Powell to pick up the phone again to lobby world leaders to support the hard-line U.S. position. In this gamble, it is possible that his elegant triumph in getting the United Nations involved could turn into a diplomatic flop in the face of Saddam's primitive wiles.
Helle Daleis deputy director of the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.
Originally appeared in The Washington Times and distributed nationally on the Scripps-Howard Wire