Call Saddam's Bluff

3 October 2002

By Stentor Danielson

President Bush has done a good job with most aspects of the debate over attacking Iraq. He's forced Congress to discuss the issue on his terms. He's turned the nation's focus away from any other issue. And by focusing on the goal (neutralizing Saddam Hussein, which most Americans want) instead of the means (unilateral action, which the country is divided over), he has put Democrats in the tough spot of either looking like out-of-touch lefty peaceniks if they oppose him, or spineless sycophants if they insist that they support the goal in principle.

But there remains one little stumbling block: evidence. Critics of the coming war say that the administration's dossier of Iraq's threats is not enough to justify a war, and Bush's claims that there's additional classified evidence don't cut it. Luckily, Hussein has offered the US an opportunity to get to the bottom of the matter. Bush simply needs to put aside his belligerent posture and call Iraq's bluff on the return of UN inspectors.

To see how thin the evidence is, take the Iraq-al Qaida connection for example. Though it seemed that the administration had dropped this line of argument, it has recently resurfaced. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has mentioned that information gleaned from prisoners at Guantanamo Bay suggests that the terrorist organization got aid from Iraq. But senators who have been privy to high-level briefings question the administration?s characterization of the evidence.

The administration has an explanation for why the public case for war may seem weak. There's better evidence out there, evidence that will make the case against Iraq a slamdunk. The only catch is, they can't tell you what it is, because that would compromise their sources.

Protecting intelligence sources is a valid thing for a government to do, of course. But the public cannot be asked to have blind faith in its leaders. And there are good reasons not to trust the current administration's assessment of its own knowledge.

The Bush administration has a track record of excessive secrecy, which in itself wouldn't be a reason to distrust its claims of evidence against Iraq. But in many cases that secrecy has been used to suppress information that would reflect negatively on the administration. For example, Bush has resisted an independent investigation into intelligence failures before September 11, even as the media continued to uncover information suggesting that the government knew quite a bit about what al Qaida was planning, but never put two and two together.

So it seems quite legitimate to be suspicious that the administration is using the secrecy defense on an issue as significant as starting a war. It's no secret that Junior has been eager to finish Senior's business in the Middle East, so it's not out of the question that he's covering up an intelligence dossier that's too thin to truly justify the attack he's been itching for since before he was privy to the CIA's secrets.

Further, the administration has lied about some of the evidence it does claim to have. The administration claimed last month that a satellite photo showed construction at a nuclear research facility, but the organization that provided the photo said that it showed no such thing. Falsifying evidence is par for the course in motivating a country to start a war. For example, the elder Bush concocted a story about Iraqi troops building up on the Saudi border to back up the case for the Gulf War.

Let's take a best-case scenario (best in terms of the administration's integrity, that is). I'll assume that there is ample evidence that Iraq is an immediate threat, and that there are sound intelligence reasons for not disclosing it. But those liberal critics aren't buying it, for good reason. What's a president to do? Luckily, Saddam himself has handed the U.S. the answer.

After Bush's speech to the UN outlining his reasons for going to war, Iraq offered to let the inspectors back in. As a political ploy it worked brilliantly, dividing world opinion that Bush had rallied behind the idea of Saddam's incorrigible refusal to comply with UN resolutions. As Bush has focused on making the case to Congress, negotiations between Iraq and the UN over the terms of these offered inspections has continued. Iraq has claimed that inspectors will be allowed unfettered access, trying to cultivate the image of a naughty dictator cowed by Bush's saber-rattling. He even managed to convince three Democratic senators of his good intentions when they made the trip to Baghdad this weekend.

But this is more than just a ploy for sympathy. At the same time he has made overtures to the weapons inspectors, Hussein has fired on American planes patrolling the no-fly zones 67 times since Bush's speech, including fourteen last weekend. He doubtless knows that this is likely to provoke the US, without unduly alarming the rest of the world. Only the US and Britain are interested in enforcing the no-fly zones, so his sniping is not likely to worry the nations negotiating over the inspectors.

Saddam seems to be taking a gamble, and the US is falling into it. He's betting on the US caring little about renewed inspections while the rest of the world insists on trying to inspect first. He's risking a daisy-cutter hitting his palace in order to turn world opinion against the US.

But the administration could turn this gamble around on Saddam, as well as domestic critics, by uniting with the rest of the world behind new inspections. The inspections would have to be tough and uncompromising, of course. The high profile of the Iraq issue would put Saddam on the spot in a way that he never was before now. Making an attempt at inspections as a prelude to war would keep the world?s nations on the same side, preventing Saddam from turning the world against us on the grounds of our unilateral action. And most significantly for the topic of this column, inspections would fill the evidence hole.

Inspectors would be able to corroborate the secret evidence that Bush claims to have. They would be less reticent about revealing information, as their sources their own eyes are already well-known. And their expertise would provide a reliable second opinion, to compare with the administration's assertions. Everyone can agree that Saddam is even less trustworthy than the Bush administration, so the "if you're hiding it, it must be incriminating" line of reasoning would work beautifully in Bush's favor. Coming from a range of nations, the inspectors would have less of a unified ulterior political agenda to promote. And the UN is likely to be a far more trustworthy source than a Republican administration to critics who are mostly liberal and internationalist.

There's just one catch: if the inspectors verify that the evidence for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction is as slim as it seems, the administration would be forced to back down from its desire to bomb Baghdad.

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