We must take Iraq's offer seriously
The September 16th announcement by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that Iraq has agreed to "unconditional" weapons inspections has introduced a new dynamic that the United Nations and the United States cannot dismiss without further exploration.
Yes, as President George W. Bush described in his September 12th U.N. speech, Iraq has made similar pledges before, and then reneged on those promises. But at the time Iraq was obstructing earlier inspections, the U.N. Security Council was divided over the protocols of inspection and over the legitimacy of sanctions that harmed the Iraqi people while seemingly leaving Saddam Hussein untouched. National self-interest also played into these divisions as countries jockeyed for potential lucrative oil contracts to be had were Iraq to be reintegrated into the world economy. Moreover, many Arab countries opposed economic sanctions (on humanitarian grounds) and the continuing military enforcement of the no-fly zones over the Northern and Southern thirds of Iraq (considered violations of Iraqi sovereignty).
Since September 12th, the resolve of the United Nations and the Arab League have coalesced around the combined messages delivered by Secretary-General Annan and President Bush. Annan told the United Nations that it must develop and implement an effective international security system. Bush emphasized that the continuing legitimacy of the United Nations rested on its willingness to implement Security Council resolutions. And, while the president's coercive rhetoric clearly went beyond the Secretary-General's call for Iraq to accept weapons inspectors, together these speeches provided energy for a renewed effort to prod Iraq to meet its obligations under international law.
The Bush administration's initial reaction dismissed the Iraqi overture, saying that "it did not change [the U.S.] posture one bit" and that the issue is not weapons inspections, but immediately beginning to disarm Iraq's chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. Indeed, at first glance, the Iraqi statement seems to justify this White House reaction. It mentions a need to discuss "practical arrangements" and insists that the United Nations have due regard for Iraq's "sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence."
But "immediate disarmament" cannot proceed without an inspection team going into Iraq and assessing Iraq's current weapons and potential to develop further stockpiles. The inspectors must establish at least one base of operations, and a logistics channel to support their work. Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, has already met once with Iraqi officials to discuss these and other "practicalities," and another meeting is scheduled. The United States should fully support Blix so that Saddam Hussein's pledge can be tested while world unanimity remains.
Similarly, both Iraq and the United States must not get bogged down in a controversy that pits U.S. demands for unfettered access for inspectors against Iraq's call for the United Nations to respect Iraq's sovereignty. These are not irreconcilable positions; indeed, the United States is publicly committed to maintaining Iraq as a unified state with complete sovereignty.
Caution is warranted because of Iraq's record of defying U.N. resolutions. But caution must not become an impediment to re-establishing inspections and, as necessary, a weapons destruction regimen. The world stands united on Iraq's obligations as it has not been since August 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait in clear violation of international law. This unanimity should remain as long as the inspection team's work is seen as impartial. In a word, there must be no hidden national agendas superimposed on the inspection team.
All this may seem like a well-traveled road that stretches beyond the horizon. But today Saddam's horizons have been sharply limited. His options are down to one. The irony is that the Iraqi offer has also brought the U.S. horizon into sharp focus. It can act "in good conscience" and test the extent of Saddam's sincerity, or it can spurn the offer and risk fracturing the current consensus. To choose the latter is to continue down a rutted road. That would be unconscionable given the high stakes in human lives and national treasure. To choose the former is, in President Bush's words, "to stand up for our security and for the permanent rights and the hopes of mankind."