Joe Conason's Journal

Blix reports "no evidence" of Iraqi nuke threat. But is there any stopping Bush and his war hawks now?

Published February 14, 2003 8:05PM (EST)

Blix and El Baradei restrain hawks
The reports of Hans Blix and Mohammed ElBaradei offered no new brief for immediate war against Iraq (despite the pre-spinning effort earlier this week by Condoleezza Rice). ElBaradei, the director of the International Atomic Energy Authority, told the Security Council that his inspectors had found no significant evidence that Baghdad has revived its effort to develop nuclear weapons. The "stunning" cache of research papers found in a private home, he said, had turned out to be nothing more sinister than the personal files of an Iraqi scientist.

ElBaradei promised to scrutinize the high-strength aluminum tubes cited repeatedly by the United States as evidence of gas-centrifuge construction -- but beyond that wispy suspicion of a bomb, his inspectors have found "no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear-related activities in Iraq." According to the IAEA director, Baghdad has provided substantial cooperation even though some issues remain "unresolved."

The tone of Blix's report was more positive than his harshly critical assessment of Iraq on Jan. 27. While he acknowledged that the Iraqi regime may still possess some chemical and biological weapons, he said that unhindered inspections conducted by his staff had found none -- and that he knew of no evidence that his operations had been penetrated by Iraqi intelligence. It is important to highlight what Blix said about Iraq's missiles, whose prohibited range instantly became the topic of headlines and is the latest excuse for immediate war. (For understandably jittery Americans, by the way, none of these missiles has sufficient power to reach Israel or Turkey, let alone the United States. I add that obvious point because of the extensive misinformation about these weapons and others that has spread so widely.)

The chief inspector recalled that in his January briefing, "I referred to the Al-Samoud 2 and the Al-Fatah missiles, reconstituted casting chambers, construction of a missile test stand, and the import of rocket engines, which were all declared to UNMOVIC by Iraq." "Declared to UNMOVIC by Iraq": That phrase bears repeating because it represents exactly what is demanded by the most stringent interpretation of the relevant resolutions. The Iraqi authorities have turned over the missiles and related equipment to UNMOVIC; those items have been identified and enumerated, and will be lawfully destroyed. Those actions conform fully to the requirements of Resolution 1441, even if the construction of the missiles violated earlier resolutions.

Yet now that the Iraqis have voluntarily surrendered the illegal weapons, our most eager hawks insist that those same missiles prove a material breach -- and therefore present an immediate reason to wage war. That is plainly wrong. While I have no sympathy at all for the Iraqi authorities, they may well believe that this means they are damned whether they comply with UNMOVIC or not. Their gradual capitulation to the Security Council's specific demands is dismissed by the Bush administration as "playing games" -- although it is easy to imagine the volcanic reaction of Colin Powell if Baghdad had not agreed to the U-2, Mirage and Antonov surveillance over-flights and private technical interviews.

In an eloquent response to the Blix and ElBaradei reports, French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin conceded that military action against Iraq may eventually be unavoidable -- but he firmly insisted that such a time has not arrived. His remarks, and those that followed from other Security Council members such as Russia, China and Mexico, suggested that American lobbying has so far accomplished little.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose credibility has suffered lasting damage over the past nine days, was unable to offer anything new in his brief and somewhat muted speech. He seemed to know that the morning's events presented a setback for the hawks. (He also may have noticed the bad news, for him and his boss, in this morning's New York Times poll.)

Powell again demanded to know how long his opponents propose to continue inspections -- and whether they are serious about enforcing Resolution 1441 if Iraq doesn't fully cooperate.

If the secretary asked those questions in good faith, they might provide the basis for compromise between Washington and London and their alienated allies in Paris and Berlin. He is right that pressure on Iraq must be maintained and that inspections (as distinguished from monitoring) cannot go on "endlessly."

The problem is that nobody believes that the Bush administration and its coalition of the (more or less) willing can be dissuaded from war within the next few weeks. The ultimate price may be the disintegration of the NATO alliance, the permanent weakening of the U.N. and the fall of the Blair government in Britain. The myopic hawks in the White House may be indifferent to such bleak prospects. But the ruined unity of the West and the world will surely encourage our elusive and determined enemies in al-Qaida.
[12:11 p.m. PST, Feb. 14, 2003]

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