War Is Not Yet Necessary

By Jessica Tuchman Mathews.

Originally printed in The Washington Post on Tuesday, January 28, 2003.

Two supreme questions still demand convincing answers: "Why war?" and "Why now?" The reasons that have been offered collapse under scrutiny.

The threat posed by Iraq is contained for now. Any attempt at external aggression would be instantly overwhelmed. Inside the country, the inspection teams preclude any significant advance in weapons-of-mass-destruction programs.

The only other source of threat is the extremely unlikely possibility that Saddam Hussein would give some of what he regards as his crown jewels to terrorists. That would be to put his life in the hands of those he cannot control. The only condition under which he would be remotely tempted to do so would be if he believed he was about to be wiped out -- in a war. Weigh that risk against the near certainty that a war will be seen in the region as an American war that will draw thousands of new recruits into the ranks of terrorist America-haters. The U.S. homeland is unready for that threat. The only possible conclusion is that while the status quo is safe for the American people, a war will put us at great risk.

The administration's answer to "Why war?" is that Saddam Hussein has failed to "voluntarily disarm." Who expected that he would? Security Council Resolution 1441 demanded a complete disclosure by Iraq of its programs, but the inspections were never envisaged as an exercise in voluntary surrender. They were undertaken as an attempt at forcibly coerced disarmament just short of war, under conditions much tougher and more invasive of Iraqi sovereignty than anything previously attempted. Such a regime would never have been set up if all that was going to be needed was a team to verify a voluntary surrender. The resolution demanded a full declaration not in the expectation of getting one but because every fact Iraq could be pressured into revealing is one inspectors do not have to uncover. Iraq's failure to come clean is indisputably a material breach of the resolution, but the question remains, is it a reason to go to war?

Regarding the timing, a study released this week by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reveals that far from being "exhausted," as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld described it, the inspection process has barely begun. The teams received their first bits of intelligence just three weeks ago, and much is still being held back. The first helicopter flight -- essential for no-notice inspections -- occurred on Jan. 5. Eight U.N. helicopters are in Baghdad now. The inspection teams are not yet at full strength. They are less than halfway through inspecting the more than 700 sites that the earlier inspection effort identified and have hardly started to examine new sites. The crucial tracking down of banned imports is in its earliest stages. Most important, overhead surveillance, without which the most sensitive sites cannot even be attempted, has not yet begun.

Inspections have neither failed nor succeeded. Much more time -- about a year -- is required to reach either outcome. (A six-month to two-year time frame is the range every expert and every study, including the administration, cited as necessary long before Resolution 1441 was negotiated.) The crucial issue, therefore, is on what grounds the United States would terminate inspections in midcourse in favor of an immediate invasion. That Hussein is a determined liar is hardly news. Only if the government's true aim is not, as stated, to disarm Hussein but rather to remove him as a matter of principle does a turn to war at this moment make sense. If that is the case, of course, the inspection and disarmament process now underway is irrelevant -- and probably was even as it was being negotiated. If so, it would be an exercise in bad faith for which the United States will pay dearly for years.

Given the immense costs and risks of war, which rise sharply without broad international support, inspections should continue until they are seriously obstructed (which should trigger an immediate invasion) or succeed. To keep the pressure on, U.S. forces must stay where they are. There is an economic and human cost to this deployment, but it is minuscule compared with the costs, in both dimensions, that would be incurred by a war. Blix must be quickly pressured to undo the blunder he has made in negotiating with Iraq over U-2 surveillance flights. The Iraqis must simply be told that if there is any physical interference it will mean the end of inspections, and if they tail the planes into the no-fly zones, their planes will be shot down. End of discussion. These are comply-or-else inspections, and such negotiations should never have been allowed to begin.

An aim of U.S. policy must be to put the onus on each of the permanent members of the Security Council, in particular, to place its complete commitment behind the intent of Resolution 1441 to disarm Iraq. If that can be achieved without war, and no one can do more now than guess at the result either way, it will be a tremendous victory for President Bush. A war at this moment, however, regardless of the outcome, will bear one of history's harshest judgments: an unnecessary war.

The writer is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.