- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 4, 2002

In a Cabinet-level meeting yesterday attended by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney the administration's heavy hitters discussed the question of how to handle the looming deadline in the weapons inspection dance with Saddam Hussein: The infamous "list" that Iraq must produce by Dec. 8. Although a senior administration official describes the results as "inconclusive," the White House is inching closer to the position that the United States must declare a "material breach" when Saddam as expected hands the United Nations a sham list.
The U.N. resolution in its unanimous, albeit murky way warns of dire consequences if Iraq is found to be in "material breach" of the new weapons inspection regime. But, because the weapons inspectors, led by European diplomat Hans Blix, have decided on the "nonconfrontational" approach, it is unlikely that Mr. Blix's team will uncover any "material" violations anytime soon. Long before the weapons inspectors canvass the entire countryside, however, Saddam must compile a list of all weapons of mass destruction and any materials or other capabilities that could be used for development of WMDs. Since Saddam is obviously not going to comply with an honest accounting of his arsenal, the Sunday deadline could become the day of reckoning.
Within the administration, there are two schools of thought about how to respond to Saddam's expected noncompliance. The wait-and-see crowd led originally by Mr. Powell wants to give the weapons inspectors breathing room to find contraband, something that could take months or even a year or more. The competing faction, however, believes that the go-slow approach would do nothing but undermine our credibility, because we have already declared that Saddam has WMD capability. So, if he denies possessing what the United States, through its intelligence, knows what Saddam in fact has, then a failure to call him out would erode our moral clarity.
The Blix backers within the administration have the nature of the weapons inspections upside-down; the "last chance" offered to Saddam is about the dictator coming clean, not the ability of the weapons inspectors to outmaneuver Baghdad's dilatory tactics. To see the trouble with giving Saddam any slack, look at what happened yesterday at one of the presidential palaces.
In a surprise visit to one of Saddam's palaces, the weapons inspectors were physically blocked from entering for at least 10 minutes more than enough time to tip off those who needed the head's up. The situation was reminiscent to one several years ago, when inspectors reported being held up at the front of a building, while witnessing trucks being loaded in back of the location. And when the weapons inspectors yesterday did finally enter the premises, they cruised through the palace in a mere hour and a half clearly not enough time for a thorough sweep.
Although he refused at the daily press briefing yesterday to state his view of how the U.S. should respond when Saddam turns in the WMD-related dossier, Mr. Rumsfeld made clear his opinion of the status of Baghdad's WMD program. "The United States knows that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. Any country on the face of the earth with an active intelligence program knows that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction."
Mr. Rumsfeld's statement, along with repeated similar declarations from U.S. and British government officials in recent months, leaves the United States with no reasonable response to Saddam's list other than calling a spade a spade. If the United States says Saddam has "one last chance," but then gives him yet another chance after lying about his WMD program, President Bush's credibility is shot. The U.N. team would also see its mission compromised, notes Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute. "If the weapons declaration is a lie, then the entire inspection regime is predicated on a lie, and it cannot, by definition, work," Ms. Pletka said.
The view espoused by Ms. Pletka and others is gaining force within the White House. According to a senior administration official, even Mr. Powell's position has "evolved," though he hasn't exactly cast his lot with Mr. Rumsfeld and company just yet. Mr. Powell is in Colombia today, but he will attend the follow-up meeting currently scheduled for tomorrow.
With the latest word inside the administration that the "list" is expected a day early, Saturday could mark an important milestone: The declaration that Iraq is in "material breach" of the U.N. If the U.S. does so, though, bombs might not start dropping immediately, but the prospect of war would be much closer to reality.

Joel Mowbray is a National Review reporter and a contributing editor to National Review Online. (jdmowbra@erols.com.)

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