Very little now stands between Iraq and war
The problem with trying to forecast the winds of war at this moment is that there are too many different tea leaves blowing past. You could choose to read, for instance, yesterday's assertion by a "senior U.S. official" that the Bush administration was weighing the option of extending U.N. weapons inspections to placate European allies and Russia.
Or you could observe that the Japanese government yesterday urged all of its citizens to leave Iraq, the sooner the better, because of the possibility of a U.S. strike.
Except for the opposition of key U.N. Security Council members Germany, France, Russia and China, and growing discord at home, there seems nothing holding back the onset of war. Even the administration's last moderate, Secretary of State Colin Powell, has become a hawk. "The question isn't how much longer do you need for inspections to work," he said this week. "Inspections will not work."
There's little doubt that the U.S. military is ready to go at a moment's notice; its only question is the use of bases and airspace in Iraq's neighbors from which to launch the invasion.
Key dates to watch, it appears, are Monday, when U.N. inspectors give a report on their progress; and Tuesday, Bush's State of the Union address. Depending on your perspective, the inspectors' report will provide either a reason to give inspections more time or the "material breach" needed to launch a war.
The problem is a total disconnect between the Bush administration's reading of the Security Council's Resolution 1441 on Iraq, passed unanimously two months ago, and the interpretation by the governments of Germany, France, Russia and China, not to mention a growing number of Americans.
The purpose of the resolution was to "afford Iraq ... a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations" and to "set up an enhanced inspection regime" to verify whether a voluntary disarmament takes place.
As the administration reads it, no disarmament has taken place, so war is the next step. Others are cutting Iraq some slack: How can Iraq disarm if no weapons of mass destruct now exist to be voluntarily surrendered or destroyed, as Iraq claims? From this question was born the inspectors' holy grail the so-far-undetected "smoking gun."
Hawks say the inspectors are on a fool's errand, and won't find any smoking guns, because Saddam Hussein has hidden them too well. Doves suggest that if they run into the thousands, as the administration contends, inspectors are bound to find some sooner or later. Besides, if they're totally hidden, they're unusable as long as inspectors have the run of Iraq.
As the Bush administration's position seemed to harden to the point where the only remaining question was "when," the inspectors were preparing a report giving Iraq a "B" for its cooperation, while the administration was releasing a paper titled "Why We Know Iraq Is Lying" (see Page B1 in tomorrow's Advertiser).
Observers concerned about the possible breakdown of international law pointed out the irony of the United States preparing to breach the U.N. Charter by attacking Iraq without Security Council authorization in order to enforce the U.N. Security Council's resolution calling on Iraq to disarm.