Saddam Hussein's grudging agreement Wednesday to accept the return of weapons inspectors, under the auspice of the unanimously passed United Nations resolution, averted an imminent invasion. Nonetheless, many experts are convinced that Saddam's often reckless behavior, combined with a White House that seems ready to seize on any pretext to attack, still make war the most likely outcome.
"I'd say it's 30/70," says George Lopez, director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute for Peace at the University of Notre Dame. "Three in 10 that forces of peace prevail."
Many analysts suggest the odds that Hussein will break with character and comply with the new, beefed-up inspections regime, and that the administration would be willing to back off its public demand for regime change -- even if Iraq is held by the U.N. to have complied -- both seem remote.
"It would take a dramatic shift on both sides to avert a war," says Jeff Guntzel, co-director of Voices in the Wilderness, an activist organization calling for the end of economic sanctions against Iraq. "I think it's a horrible game being fought between two belligerent governments. The chemistry does not bode well for peace."
That's because even if Saddam, notorious for misreading his diplomatic and political situation, suddenly decided to cooperate with the inspectors, that sort of about-face might weaken him so badly at home that he could be overthrown. At the same time, the Bush administration appears split between unilateral hawks in the Pentagon who badly want war, and multilateralists at the State Department who prefer a go-slow approach. Although Colin Powell and the multilateralists won the last round, convincing President Bush -- against the arguments of the hawks -- to go through the U.N., many observers believe that the hawks are stronger and will ultimately triumph. And the only acceptable outcome for the hawks is war -- even if the U.S. has to go it alone.
"It makes no difference what Saddam does, it looks like it's wired for war," says Yvonne Haddad, professor of Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University. Noting that the U.S. has begun a military buildup in the region before a single inspection has taken place, she says, "Even if he complies, we're going to go in and get him eventually."
United Nations weapons inspection resolution 1441 warns of "serious consequences" -- code words for war -- if Iraq fails to comply, and states Iraq remains in "material breach" of previous U.N. resolutions. Any additional violations during the inspection process could trigger a military strike. The inspection regime under 1441 is much tougher than the one used throughout the 1990s (1248), which allowed Saddam and his team to foil inspectors by providing partial information, locking doors to sites, and insisting scientists scheduled for interviews had to cancel supposedly to attend family weddings.
If the inspectors report any Iraqi noncompliance, the resolution calls for the Security Council to reconvene immediately to debate the matter. Even without serious accusations, the Security Council is scheduled to reconvene in late February to hear a report from chief weapons inspector Hans Blix. After lengthy wrangling driven by French and Russian concerns that the resolution not provide an automatic trigger for a U.S. invasion, the final resolution leaves it up to the inspectors, not the U.S., to decide whether Iraq is in material breach. But the U.S. has made clear it will not consider itself necessarily bound by the Security Council's final decision and may go to war with Iraq even if the U.N. body votes against an attack.
Still, such a scenario would be a worst-case one for the hawks. Whether the U.S. would actually be prepared to flout the world body and stage a unilateral invasion is unclear: Polls have shown that most Americans would not support a go-it-alone war, and the international repercussions could be severe.
But most experts doubt that Saddam will be able to finesse the issue that far. Indeed, he may well run afoul of the U.N. right off the bat. "The question is, can Saddam satisfy the demands of the resolution, which is filled up with traps for Iraq to fall into," asks Guntzel.
The first test will come on Dec. 8, when Iraq, according to 1441, must deliver "a currently accurate, full, and complete declaration of all aspects of its programs to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other delivery systems." The U.S. will compare the submitted list to its own internal intelligence to determine whether Saddam is being open and forthright. Any omissions from that list or false statements would constitute a material breach, according to the Security Council.
"Is it even humanly possible for them to record all that information?" wonders Lopez. "Could the Soviet Union have provided this inventory at the height of the cold war, compared to a backward, secretive country like Iraq where so few people actually know all the information about the weapons program?"
How the weapons declaration is handled by the administration, which has called for "zero tolerance" for inspection violations, will be an early indication of the White House's mind-set. "The critical question is how much slack is the United States going to give Saddam," says Sandra Mackey, author of "The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein." She suggests if hawks at the White House have their way, the U.S. would launch a war based on omissions from the Dec. 8 weapons list, even before Blix and his team began their work. "The hawks don't want the resolution to work. They want an excuse to go in and get Saddam now."
Bolstering her suspicions were comments made earlier this week by Pentagon advisor Richard Perle, a leading hawk, to the London Guardian. Stating that inspectors would likely be outmaneuvered by the Iraqis and that Blix was not up to the task of chief inspector, Perle seemed to argue that even the absence of weapons of mass destruction would be prima facie evidence that Saddam was in noncompliance and that an invasion should proceed forthwith.
Perle's anticipatory saber rattling was countered on Wednesday by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who told the U.S. to be "a bit patient" in its confrontation with Baghdad. Perle's harsh rhetoric also flew in the face of recent statements made by French and Russian diplomats, who have said that the issue of whether Iraq had complied was a matter for the Security Council to decide.
"There are some in the administration who obviously want to do more than inspections; you can feel their aching," says P.W. Singer, an Olin fellow in the foreign-policy studies program at the Brookings Institution.
The hawks' first big chance may be when Iraq submits its list of weapons. "It will be the single most difficult obstacle [for Saddam] because the United States will say the list is no good," says Judith Kipper, co-director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But France and Russia and Israel will have their own lists and nobody [for competitive reasons] will want to share them." In the end, she doesn't believe the document will be cause for war. Instead it will likely be left up to inspectors on the ground to uncover material breaches in order for war to be authorized.
"Who knows, maybe everybody will be surprised and it will be a big list complete with information we didn't even have and the inspectors can start doing their jobs," says Kipper.
Indeed, the Iraqi leader is notoriously difficult to read. Iraq's acceptance of the U.N. resolution on Wednesday, two days before the final deadline, raised some eyebrows among observers who assumed Saddam was operating in his usual brinkmanship mode. That surprise paled compared to the shock last month when the Iraqi dictator ordered the country's jail doors opened as he freed thousands of prisoners. "Never in a million years would I have predicted that," says Guntzel, who has been monitoring Saddam's action for the last decade.
Still, if some Saddam watchers had to guess, they suggest he'll try, unsuccessfully, to finesse his way out of this colossal jam. The problem is that if Saddam tries to placate the outside world, he risks being overthrown at home -- but if he maintains his hard-line stance to keep domestic power, he invites an invasion. "He's going to play cat and mouse because he really can't be seen as totally capitulating to the U.N. and United States, and creating the impression among his own people that his power is waning. He's on some thin ice," says Mackey. She explains that following the Gulf War, Saddam made alliances with tribes in the north and south, and that in exchange for money, weapons and favors, the tribal leaders kept people from opposing the dictator. Those crucial ties could be strained if Saddam appears weak during the inspection process.
A complete surrender at the hands of the U.N. "would be enormously risky and embolden a general to take Saddam out," says Warren Bass, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "Saddam would have to explain why, after he'd put his country through a decade of sanctions, he gave up his weapons of mass destruction."
John Voll, professor of Islamic History at Georgetown, disagrees: "I think he could comply and say he was saving the lives of thousands of his countrymen and saving Iraq from an outside occupation. He could play the victim successfully."
But Voll doubts the "bloodthirsty" dictator will opt for capitulation. And that, combined with a fractured U.S. administration "that still hasn't decided what it wants to do," means war remains the most likely outcome. "I'm normally an optimist and can create semi-hopeful scenarios," he says. "But when push comes to shove, I'm not terribly sanguine about the possibility of peace."