Bush really means
business with Iraq

Those in Australia who scout the likelihood of war with Iraq rely on two judgments: that Saddam is sagacious, not foolhardy; and that Bush is bluffing, not war-bent.

A slightly edited version of this appeared in
The Australian Financial Review 11 December 2002

Saddam, these Australians suggest, realises that he is in "really big trouble", that the game is up and that the only way to save himself is to comply fully with UN Security Council resolution 1441 and the ten earlier resolutions it cites. That is to say, Saddam's sagacity lies in his not thinking that Bush is bluffing. Which puts him at odds with these Australians.

Do Saddam's 13,000-page "declaration" support the view that he has really given in? We shan't know for sure until the information has been analysed and compared with what others know, which will take more than a few days.

What should we be looking for in Saddam's declaration? First, as he says he now has no WMD, and as we know for sure he still had some explaining to do when the UN inspectors were forced out in 1998, when, where, and how did he disarm himself? That, which is for Saddam to reveal in accordance with Art. 2 of Resolution 1441, will be a more reliable way to judge his good faith than having inspectors wander around looking for a smoking gun.

The second thing to look for is the list, required by Art.7 of Resolution 1441, of names of all personnel currently and formerly associated with Iraq's WMD and associated programs. For the likelihood is small of the inspectors finding anything which Saddam has had ample time to conceal, unless their searches are directed. Western intelligence should help a bit, but much the surest way - as in the 1990s - is the testimony of those in the know.

Because Saddam knows that, he will have taken steps - if he is lying about having no WMD - to intimidate possible informants into silence. Which is why Art.5 of Resolution 1441 empowers the inspectors to "conduct interviews inside or outside Iraq", "without the presence of Iraqi observers", and to "facilitate the travel of those interviewed, and family members, out of Iraq". And which is also why America and Britain are prepared to give asylum to these people.

That is also why it is so deplorable that Hans Blix, the chief inspector, has rejected urgings that he make use of his Art.5 powers. A change in Blix's attitude is necessary if the world is not again to be fooled by Saddam.

Finally, perhaps the whole thing is a charade on both sides, not only with Saddam lying in his teeth but also with Bush either not really meaning what he says about a US-led coalition disarming Saddam if he will not disarm himself, or anyway being content with pinpoint air strikes rather than "full-scale war".

Those Australians who think this about Bush - who want to think it - suggest that over the course of this year he came to realise that the military task of overthrowing Saddam was too difficult, or anyway too contingent, too costly in money and bodies, too costly also in consequence, not least in the task of nation building and democratising and in removing the balancer to Iran. So Bush gratefully turned to the UN Security Council reckoning that it would spin things out by various means, including inconclusive inspections, and in the end would deny him Security Council authority to proceed forcibly against Iraq; and reckoning also that, without that authority, too many abroad and at home would oppose the use of force to make its use militarily and politically possible.

Perhaps. But much more likely not - principally because Bush, even after going down the UN road, chose in very strong and repeated terms to say that if the UN would not do the job, if it was reconciled to being no more effective than the League of Nations, the US and others would act anyway.

For him now to row back from that, especially with bi-partisan Congressional support for action with or without Security Council authorisation, would be such an extraordinary political climb-down as to destroy his credibility across the board and to ensure a family double of one-term incumbency.

Bush is at bottom a conviction politician, not solely a calculating one. But either way he is not about to give up on Iraq, any more than he is on terrorism - though to give the UN a final chance he won't move for several months yet.