Blind man's brinksmanship

Early signs suggest Saddam may deny that he has weapons of mass destruction -- just what White House hawks are hoping for.

By Eric Boehlert
Published December 6, 2002 12:12AM (EST)

For much of this year, war planners at the White House and Pentagon have had the month of January circled on their 2003 calendars. Coming just before the onset of brutal heat in the Gulf region, and far enough off to give them time to amass troops in the vicinity, January was seen as the optimum time to launch a war against Iraq. Now, with Saddam Hussein poised to make another of his trademark strategic blunders, it looks more and more like the administration will get its wish date for war.

With a looming Dec. 8 deadline set by the United Nations for Iraq to make "a currently accurate, full, and complete declaration" of its banned weapon programs, Saddam Hussein is faced with a crucial decision about what or how much to reveal. Officials in Baghdad this week publicly denied having any weapons of mass destruction, and if that's the road they take, Saddam's on the verge of making a very bad decision.

"He's a bumbler, and a brinksman who doesn't know where the brink is," says Warren Bass, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, an influential think tank in Washington. "I don't think he realizes how stark the situation is." Others, however, suggest a more ominous possibility: that Saddam has concluded that war is inevitable, and is now playing chess to maximize his advantages.

The problem, of course, is that Saddam is notoriously unpredictable. He made devastating diplomatic miscalculations in the months leading up to the war with Iran and the Gulf War; at other times, he has made a show of strenuous protest before capitulating to Western demands.

Passed unanimously last month, U.N. weapons inspection Resolution 1441 warns of "serious consequences" -- code words for war -- if Iraq fails to comply. The resolution set a Dec. 8 deadline for Iraq to essentially fess up by publicly declaring any nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs it had been forbidden from developing since the Gulf War, and especially since 1998, when the last U.N. inspectors left the country. Resolution 1441 holds that any violations during the inspection process, such as obstructing the work of inspectors, could trigger a military strike. During the weapons declaration, making "false statements or omissions" would constitute a serious violation, or material breach.

That's why the Dec. 8 deadline looms so large; though the possibility is widely being downplayed, the declaration could, in theory, provoke a war. "I think it can be a trigger for material breach," says David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector.

For an administration that at times still seems to be searching for a definitive reason to wage war, Iraq's anticipated weapons denial, which will likely be delivered a day early on Saturday, could be just what Bush's hawks are hoping for.

"If Iraq declares it has nothing, the chances of war escalate dramatically," says Albright, currently president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington. "The Bush administration will trumpet it as, 'I told you so,' and France and Russia will be hard-pressed to defend Iraq." Both France and Russia are members of the U.N. Security Council, have signed lucrative oil contracts with Iraq and are seen as Baghdad's strongest, albeit somewhat reluctant, defenders at the U.N.

Indications are that's the direction Iraq is headed. "We are a country devoid of weapons of mass destruction," Hussam Mohammed Amin, head of the Iraqi National Monitoring Directorate, announced this week. He hinted the declaration would include "new elements," but none that outlined current weapons of mass destruction. It's possible Iraq will try to detail how it voluntarily disposed of its weapons, or how some banned materials actually have a dual, or civilian, use. Those details in and of themselves could be voluminous and keep both the White House and inspectors occupied for several weeks.

But the real issue will be weapons of mass destruction. "If Saddam says Iraq has zero, than we'd be into it right away -- military action in my view," says Terrence Taylor, former UNSCOM inspector for biological weapons.

White House officials insist they will not move right away against Iraq based solely on a faulty weapons declaration, but will use it to bolster its final case against Saddam. And last week British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told Parliament that his country would need additional evidence of Iraqi noncompliance, verified by the inspectors, before declaring that Saddam had triggered a war.

The U.S. would certainly consider an Iraqi denial about weapons of mass destruction to be a material breach. If the U.N.'s Security Council, bolstered by evidence provided by its own weapons inspectors or the White House, agreed, it could authorize force against Iraq. In their initial inspections, though, inspectors apparently have found little to raise concerns about a possible Iraqi weapons stockpile.

That evidence-gathering phase could be complete by January. Late January is also when chief weapons inspector Hans Blix will make his first official report back to the Security Council. If the inspectors report significant problems, and if Saddam's December inventory report is deemed incomplete or dishonest, the stage could be set for war.

The White House would still have to convince Americans that if Iraq denies it has any weapons of mass destruction that's reason enough to wage war. According to a recent CNN/USA Today poll, just 39 percent agreed with that scenario, while 56 percent disagreed.

Still, a blanket Iraqi denial this weekend would make the White House's task of broadening international support for a military strike much easier, provided the U.S. has definitive proof Iraq is lying. Even if the U.N. is reluctant to act, Bush has made clear the U.S. will strike on its own if need be. "His preference is to blow up Iraq with concurrence of the U.N., so he's acting as executor of world opinion," says John Pike, a defense analyst with, a nonprofit intelligence think tank in Alexandria, Va.

By denying the existence of forbidden weapons, the Iraqis "risk seriously uniting the Security Council, and inviting a preemptive move from the administration," adds David Kay, who led the first team of nuclear arms inspectors into Iraq in 1991.

Why would Saddam invite that kind of action? "I think Saddam Hussein has calculated war is inevitable so he's going to protect everything," says Albright. "I think it's another miscalculation on his part."

"He has so little knowledge of the outside world he's not able to really figure out what he's up against," adds Sandra Mackey, author of "The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein." "He's a very good tactician but not a good strategist. Meaning, he can win a battle but he can't win a war."

Prior to the Iraqi public statements about the pending declaration, many experts, seeing how much cooperation weapons inspectors were receiving, assumed Saddam would try to meet the U.N. halfway by admitting to several previously banned weapons programs in order to appease some members of the Security Council, while at the same time keeping some secrets for himself.

"The administration's nightmare scenarios would be for Iraq, through the declaration and through what they do in immediate follow-up, to basically confess and deliver everything to them in tidy little package," says Pike at "That way Iraq could convince everyone who could be convinced that they've disarmed, seen the errors of their way, and the United States would have no grounds to blow them up."

That scenario may still play out. The dossier to be delivered this weekend may be more than 1,000 pages, and nobody outside of Iraq knows for sure what will be in it. But if Iraq plays hardball with the declaration, it will be playing to a very skeptical audience and be forced to prove a negative -- that it has no banned weapons.

"Even if it's true, nobody's going to believe them," notes Albright. "It's just not the Iraqi way to make a voluntary decision to give those weapons up. Although that would be the ultimate irony -- if Iraq really had no weapons of mass destruction, but we went to war anyway."

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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George W. Bush Iraq Middle East United Nations