Hans Blix has delivered his report: a medley of facts and fantasies--a report on Iraq's non-compliance and a plea that Iraq be given more time in which not to comply. The United States is rejecting the plea, other countries on the Security Council wish to accept it. Blix said he and his inspectors had failed to find any weapons of mass destruction--and implied that his failure somehow exonerated Iraq. What now?
Now things go quiet for a little. Britain's Tony Blair wants the UN Security Council to vote on another resolution authorizing force. If the polls are right, about 15% of the British public firmly favours action in Iraq, about 40% strongly opposes it--and up to 45% could be swayed one way or the other. A second resolution that explicitly endorses military action by the United States and Britain would be extremely valuable to him. It looks as if the United States will give Blair time to seek that second resolution. In an interview after Blix's presentation, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said that military action will come, if it comes, within weeks, not days.
From a U.S. point of view, Powell's statement is a large concession. The Americans say they already have all the legal authority they need to fight Saddam Hussein: a long string of UN Security Council resolutions dating back to 1991 and culminating in Resolution 1441, which the council adopted unanimously just a few weeks ago. If Blair goes back to the council for still more authority--and then fails to get it--the U.S. position would suddenly look a lot less persuasive.
So a second resolution would be a large risk--but the United States owes Blair a large debt.
Ascertaining whether a second resolution will or won't be available will consume at least a week, maybe closer to two. And through those weeks, the U.S. military position will get stronger. The Pentagon acknowledged on Thursday that U.S. Special Forces are already operating inside Iraq. The Turkish parliament has now voted to support the United States as well.
But while the military benefits from delay, delay poses dangers too. The longer the United States waits to take action, the more chances it gives North Korea and Iran to make mischief. Delay also creates opportunities for the Iraqi elite to overthrow Saddam themselves and try to strike a deal with the United States to preserve their privileges. Most of America's European and Arab allies would prefer a surgical coup to war--and so would many important people in the United States.
Just this week, the National Security Council's point man for Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, visited the Persian Gulf and conspicuously snubbed the leadership of the democratic Iraqi National Congress in order to pay court to Adnan Pachachi, a former Iraqi foreign minister and old-fashioned pan-Arabist. Mr. Pachachi is more than 80 years old and in many ways a very disturbing figure--for three decades he advocated the annexation of Kuwait to Iraq--but for many in the Middle East and the U.S. government he has one overwhelming advantage: He doesn't upset the Saudis the way that the INC does with its subversive talk of elections, tolerance and minority rights.
Still, Saddam has again and again proven himself skilled at defeating coups. Assuming no coup and no UN resolution, sometime about the first of March U.S. President George W. Bush will be faced with the choice: order war without further UN sanction, or retreat.
And that is an easy choice to predict. Even Bill Clinton was willing to make war without UN approval in Kosovo in 1999--if Clinton could do it, Bush certainly can.
Once the shooting starts, the timetable stops being measured in weeks--and starts being measured in hours. Saddam Hussein has Iraq rigged like a giant bomb. He has booby-trapped the dams on Iraq's two great rivers and he may have done the same to Iraq's oilfields. One disaster scenario is the possibility that Saddam may launch chemical warfare against Iraq's Shi'ite minority. Some two million people live just outside Baghdad in a vast slum called "Saddam City." What if Saddam were to threaten to send crop dusters over Saddam City to poison the people there with mustard gas or VX--the weapons he used against the Kurds of northern Iraq in 1988? My sources say gassing two million people from the air would take about a week--the lives of many innocent Iraqis could depend on the speed with which U.S. tanks can move.
Let's hope they can move fast enough. Let's hope this whole timetable can move fast enough.
David Frum is a visiting fellow at AEI.