- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Here's the news for those who thought for a moment that Saddam Hussein's latest feint has thrown the Bush administration's plans for Iraq off balance: It won't.

When the Iraqi dictator declared on Monday that he would accept "unconditional" U.N. weapon's inspections to the sound of "Hosannahs" rising from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the man who promised us unfettered access to Saddam's "palaces" in 1998 he handed the United States a winning strategy. Even though Saddam's intention were to stave off American military action sanctioned by the United Nations, Iraq has now effectively boxed itself into a corner. The day Saddam Hussein freely allows U.N. inspectors to investigate the inner-secrets of his weapons laboratories is the day pigs will fly.

The offer is in fact just the latest of a recent flurry of such proposals from Baghdad to the United Nations, which at least suggests a certain level of desperation or anxiety. Twice in August, Iraq offered to let U.N. inspectors back in, first in the shape of an invitation to chief weapons inspector Hans Blix and 10 days later in a letter from Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri to the United Nations. Both times, however, Iraqi conditions were attached to the offers, which were therefore rejected.

Saddam's failure to comply with "unconditional inspections" as per U.N. Security Council Resolution 687 will assuredly give the United States all the legal justification we need to proceed with regime change. What's more, he is no more likely to comply with any of the other U.N. resolutions which Iraq has violated since the end of the Gulf War. Even with this latest slick maneuver, the case against Saddam will remain as strong as ever.

The litany of Iraqi violations of at least 16 Security Council resolutions was one of the strongest features of President Bush's speech to the U.N. General Assembly last week: refusals to comply with arms inspections, the development of weapons of mass destruction, support for terrorist networks, failure to release prisoners of war from the Gulf War, the use of torture and imprisonment of opposition groups. The list goes on.

Yesterday's news came just in the nick of time, actually, as Washington was moving into a dead-end debate over an idea floated by Jessica T. Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. For the past few days the idea of "coerced" inspections has been the flavor du jour of the political debate. It was endorsed, among others, by former Secretary of State James Baker and by Rolf Ekeus, the Swedish former head of the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM), in The Washington Post on Sunday.

"The answer lies in a radical strengthening of the inspection systems," wrote Mr. Ekeus. "The inspectors should be backed up by an inspection implementation force positioned in neighboring countries and possibly in some parts of Iraq … . Any obstruction by Iraq should be met with immediate reaction." He suggested giving inspectors the power to call in punitive strikes right there on the spot.

"Failure to provide for this type of 'coercive' inspection is one reason prior inspections have failed," wrote Mr. Baker. But this is an absolute recipe for disaster.

We would be back in the cat-and-mouse game endured by the U.N. inspection teams for seven years before Saddam finally threw the last of them out in 1998. There have been no weapons inspectors in Iraq since then.

What's more, it could be hard to get volunteers for the inspectors' jobs. They would become instant hostages the moment military punitive action was called down in response to Iraqi recalcitrant behavior. If Iraq now accepts "unconditional" inspections, the case for coercion obviously evaporates. Either Saddam complies or he doesn't. If he doesn't, the case for regime change has been established once again.

Some will wonder whether George Bush was wrong to go to the United Nations in the first place. Does he not run the danger of going down the same road his father did, investing the world body with too much authority? (Remember that it was the first President Bush who invented the phrase "New World Order.") And would not the U.S. government be wrong to accept two Security Council resolutions on Iraq, as proposed by the French?

If the timing and the wording is right, the answer to all of the above is no. The Bush administration will have strengthened its case and given our allies the rationale they needed to join with us in military action. Furthermore, as Mr. Bush asked in his speech, "Are Security Council Resolutions to be honored and enforced or cast aside without consequence? Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding or will it be irrelevant?" Good questions. They deserve an answer.

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