January 23, 2003

January 23, 2003 | Commentary on Middle East

Stay the Course

President Bush is right: Watching Saddam Hussein play hide-and-seek with weapons inspectors is like enduring "the rerun of a bad movie." But is it one that Americans are willing to sit through?

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that support for the president remains high: 57 percent back military action. That's down from the 62 percent who voiced support in mid-December, but it's far more than the 45 percent who favored military action on the eve of the Gulf War in 1991 (a figure that rose significantly once the firing began).

It turns out, though, that this silver cloud has a black lining: 43 percent say weapons inspectors should have as much time as they like to do their job, with some willing to give them "a few months" or more. At first glance, this position may seem reasonable, if not admirable. War is a deadly business, after all, and we shouldn't rush into it. But there are several weighty reasons we shouldn't sit back and wait.

One is Baghdad's record of non-compliance. Seven years of U.N. inspections failed to rid Iraq of its prohibited weapons before Saddam Hussein pulled the plug in 1998. There's no reason to believe that inspections can achieve genuine disarmament now. Iraq's Dec. 7 "full and complete" weapons declaration, which recycled past denials and contained virtually no new information, shows that Saddam Hussein has no intention of giving today's inspectors any more chance of success than he gave their predecessors.

The United States cannot afford to allow Iraq to return to its 1991-1998 charade of "cooperating" with U.N. arms inspections. This would allow Baghdad to buy time to develop and deploy more dangerous weapons. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently warned: "We do know that Iraq has designed its programs in a way that they can proceed in an environment of inspections, and that they are skilled at denial and deception."

Another danger to giving the inspectors "a few months" or more is that it allows head weapons inspector Hans Blix to continue playing into Saddam's hands. Although Iraq's failure to divulge its weapons programs violates U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, Blix has indicated that his Jan. 27 report to the Security Council will mark "the beginning of the inspection process, not the end of it." He has unilaterally redefined his mission to be one of "containment" of Iraq and has promised to continue inspections despite Saddam's failure to provide the required "full and complete" declaration.

Listening to Blix, one could easily forget that our mission is to disarm Iraq, not merely inspect it. Resolution 1441, which threatened "serious consequences" if Iraq did not comply with its obligations, clearly puts the onus on Iraq to prove it has disarmed -- not on the inspectors to prove it hasn't. Washington must insist that Baghdad rigorously comply with these obligations, not just go through the motions of cooperating with inspections.

Finally, let's not forget that Iraq is already in "material breach" of Resolution 1441. Its continued attacks on U.S. and British aircraft patrolling the no-fly zones are bad enough. But critics want inspectors to find a new "smoking gun" despite the fact that Baghdad's own Dec. 7 disclosure failed to account for many old "smoking guns" discovered by the pre-1998 inspection team: 550 artillery shells filled with mustard gas, 400 aerial bombs capable of carrying biological agents, nearly 30,000 empty munitions that could be filled with chemical agents, and huge quantities of anthrax and nerve gas that remain missing and unaccounted for by Baghdad. Iraq also failed to account for 12 chemical warheads found by inspectors on Jan. 16.

Where are these items? Resolution 1441 -- the one that promises "serious consequences" for non-compliance -- obligates Iraq to prove they've been destroyed.

"We know for a fact that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs are being largely blocked, even frozen," French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin says. No, we don't know that "for a fact." Only Iraq can prove it's true. And so far, it hasn't done so.

So let's give this "bad movie" the thumbs-down it deserves -- and show Iraq that, one way or another, it's going to disarm.

James Phillips is a research fellow specializing in the Middle East at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based research institution.

About the Author

James Phillips Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

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