Diplomatic Diary: Are We Being Naive?

What is the function of the weapons inspectors in Iraq? This is not a trick question. What exactly are they supposed to do? As we close in on the first serious deadline for the United Nations investigators on Jan. 27, that question is going to be crucially, vitally important in deciding whether we should go to war.

So let me give you some options. Are inspectors supposed to:

A. Discover Saddam's hidden weapons of mass destruction?

B. Supervise Saddam's voluntary dismantling of those hidden weapons?

C. Gather intelligence for more accurate military strikes by the U.S. and its allies?

D. Justify war or peace?

Most people probably believe a combination of D--to justify war or peace--with perhaps a touch of A. We all want the inspectors to make the hardest decision for us. Is it really worth the loss of life in Iraq? Maybe the inspectors can give us some facts to help us out of our moral maze.

So everyone is waiting for the inspectors to uncover something-anything--that will prove that either Saddam is a menace to the world, or a menace to his own people. Everyone including the Iraqi and U.S. officials, even though they know that is categorically not the role of the inspectors.

In fact the Bush administration was so concerned at the burden placed on Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, that it felt compelled to spell out his role before he set to work last year. Back in October, when the U.N. Security Council was still debating the shape of the anti-Iraq resolution and Congress was steaming toward its war resolution, Blix met with a series of senior administration officials at the State Department.

At an hour-long session hosted by Secretary of State Colin Powell, Blix was told to ignore the military storm gathering around him. Underscoring that message were national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff.

"We were very careful in structuring this," says one senior State Department official. "Right from that structuring meeting, we said: 'Your job is not to decide on war. It's to inspect and report on the facts. It's the Security Council and its members who must decide at that point'."

On that question, as on so many others about the weapons inspectors, there is real common ground between the U.S. and Iraq. Both Washington and Baghdad believe the inspectors will play a central role in forming world opinion when they present their findings at the U.N. Both Washington and Baghdad also believe the inspectors are likely to find nothing substantive in the next few weeks and months. And both Washington and Baghdad believe the inspectors can provide really useful intelligence to the CIA and the Pentagon.

Of course, the motives and hopes of Washington and Baghdad could not be more different. Where Washington hopes to demonstrate Baghdad's intransigence, Baghdad hopes to demonstrate its innocence. So who in their right mind would entrust the life-and-death decision of war to such a discredited and manipulated process? Answer: we do.

We have mostly forgotten--or just chosen to ignore--why the world created U.N. weapons inspectors in the first place. Under the terms of the 1991 ceasefire with Iraq, the U.N. dreamt up its first inspection regime--known as UNSCOM, the U.N.'s Special Commission--to supervise Iraq's destruction of its own missiles. It was also created to monitor and verify Iraq's commitment not to develop any more weapons of mass destruction.

Monitoring, verifying, supervising. Not chasing or hunting. And certainly not justifying war or peace.

Instead of that naive mandate, we remember instead a decade of fruitless searches, a handful of successful detections and a lot of mutual recrimination. How can the Bush administration shake off those images? It can't. And it's not about to try. Senior officials say there almost certainly will not be a smoking gun to justify war. Besides, they say, they don't need one.

"If tomorrow they walk into some laboratory and find biological weapons being produced, the game is pretty much up," says one senior official. "But if we come down to [Jan.] 27th and the inspectors report that the Iraqis have not provided up to date lists of scientists, haven't accounted for mustard gas, or biological agents or missile testing, it's up to us to decide whether the facts of non-cooperation are so obvious at that point that we need to move forward in a different manner.

"It's not a game of catch-me-if-you-can. Just because you open the door to the police, does not make you a law-abiding citizen."

For the Bush administration, Iraqi non-cooperation is all the inspectors need to prove. They don't need to chance upon any biological weapons. They don't need to discover any illegally long-range missiles. They don't even need to be turned away from a presidential palace (although that might help with the PR war). Iraq has already proved it is refusing to cooperate: just look at the holes in its paperwork.

In other words, the Bush administration would like the answer to the question at the top of this column to be A. But it knows it should only be B. At the very least it hopes to get C. And in spite of its best intentions, it is ending up with D.

That's a tall order for an inspection process that nobody believes in. And it's no wonder the world is confused about what the inspectors are really doing in Iraq.

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