Instead of the calm before the storm, we've witnessed the verbal firestorm before the report.
The chief U.N. inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohammed ElBaradei, have yet to deliver their first serious report on Iraqi cooperation with Security Council resolution 1441 and already every diplomat, politician and policymaker with a set of vocal cords has gotten his/her two cents into the rhetorical pot on the next step to take in dealing with Saddam Hussein.
President Bush said the Iraqi leader has been given "ample time" to disarm and that the Iraqi tactics "…appear to look like a rerun of a bad movie and I'm not interested in watching." Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "let's not lose sight of the fact that the issue is the disarmament of Iraq, not how much more time the inspectors need." Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, wrote in the New York Times: "Iraq is still treating inspections as a game. It should know time is running out."
But Washington clearly did not have a monopoly on headlines. French President Jacques Chirac said "an extra delay is necessary" for inspectors to continue their work; while his foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, raised the possibility at the U.N. that France would exercise its Security Council veto to prevent the U.S. from taking the U.N. to war. Germany's foreign minister, Jochska Fischer, repeated his country's well-known position that it too was opposed to a military solution, and warned that a war against Iraq would have a negative impact on the war on terrorism. No problem, said U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: Germany and France represent "old Europe." The U.S., Rumsfeld said, would have other European allies in its camp. That comment caused a new/old problem – ruffled feathers in Paris and Berlin.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin called the White House and emphasized the importance of next week's report. Foreign ministers from Arab and Muslim neighbors of Iraq gathered in Istanbul to try to find a way out. Even the NATO Secretary General, Lord Robertson, got into the act. "This is not some sort of bust-up. It's a disagreement on timing, not on substance."
Just to make sure everyone had a handy reference guide to Iraq's history of non-compliance with the U.N. the White House put out two information packets to go along with major speeches by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and the Pentagon's number two official, Paul Wolfowitz. With "Apparatus of Lies" the title of one of the handouts the message was not hard to decipher. Like the week's rhetoric, there was nothing subtle about the presentation.
It would be fair to ask what's going on. In the first place, the end game for Saddam Hussein's rule over Iraq has started.
Everyone is staking out their position on what the ultimate direction of action should be and, yes, everyone is playing to key political constituencies. The press made much of a deep split between Washington and two old allies. Headlines said France was diplomatically "sandbagging" the Bush administration. While Powell was none too pleased with the French tactics, by week's end he was at his diplomatic best trying to defuse the press' reporting. "I enter into all of these issues with a desire to hear from the others and recognizing that they have their points of view and they have their principles they believe in. And that's the greatness of our alliance … where we listen to others and we find a way forward." He also noted that when the debate on resolution 1441 started, France was not on board, but by the end it joined to support the international call for Iraqi disarmament.
But the bottom line for the Bush administration is becoming more and more apparent: The U.N. has given Iraq one last chance to disarm and it has not done so. Giving the inspectors more time will not solve the problem, therefore, if the U.N. cannot agree to take military action, the U.S. will lead a so-called "coalition of the willing" to do the job.
Mr. Bush and his national security team have laid it out for all the world – including Saddam Hussein – to see and the only hurdle remaining is to hear the U.N. inspectors give their report, have a short debate (a week or two) about next steps and, assuming the U.N. will not agree to act militarily, Washington will do what it is preparing militarily to do and what it has said all along it would do.
Yes, it would be more politically acceptable if military action were taken under the U.N. umbrella, but no, it's not at all necessary. If and when push comes to shove, the Bush administration will find out which allies have the political courage, or "guts," as Deputy Secretary Armitage put it, to follow Washington's lead.
By Charles Wolfson
Copyright 2003 CBS. All rights reserved.