The return of weapons inspectors to Iraq has alarmed many of President George W. Bush's most hawkish supporters. They warn that the White House is repeating the mistakes of the 1990s and setting the stage for a monumental foreign policy blunder.
The hawks are wrong. Although it is too early to tell if inspections will work, President Bush was right to give Iraq one final opportunity to comply with its international obligations and rid itself of weapons of mass destruction.
True, the president's strategy has risks. All strategies do. While the new weapons inspectors are armed with better detection equipment and greater authority than past inspectors, they probably will not find every weapon Saddam Hussein has stockpiled.
Chemical and biological weapons stand out in this regard. The equipment needed to manufacture them can be moved around and has multiple civilian uses. So some stockpiles or production facilities might escape detection. But large-scale production will be difficult to hide from the inspectors.
Inspectors stand a better chance of finding and dismantling Baghdad's nuclear weapons program. Unless Iraq can steal fissile material from abroad, it has to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium. Both require large-scale industrial undertakings that are virtually impossible to hide from intrusive inspections of the kind the United Nations has now authorized.
Another risk hawks fear is that Baghdad will play divide and conquer, offering just enough cooperation to satisfy most U.N. members but not enough to satisfy Washington. Saddam used this tactic effectively during the Clinton years.
But hawks underestimate this White House's determination not to be played for fools. After Sept. 11, Bush will not settle for occasional cruise missile attacks and bombing raids. He's determined to march on Baghdad if that is what it takes to disarm Iraq. Faced with a choice between saving his weapons and his neck, Saddam might opt for the latter.
The risks of trying one final time to disarm Iraq peacefully must also be balanced against the risks of going to war. Hawks could be wrong in their claims that the second Gulf War would be a cakewalk. Urban warfare in Baghdad is a possibility, and with it the potential for significant American casualties.
The CIA reports that war could provoke what Washington wants to prevent— an Iraqi decision to use weapons of mass destruction or give them to terrorist groups that will. Just as troubling, terrorists might steal Iraqi weapons in the chaos that inevitably accompanies fighting.
Moreover, to fight the war the United States will need the cooperation of other countries. Many allies told Washington they would help only if it gave weapons inspections one last chance. Ignoring allied views would have made a war harder to fight and placed American troops at greater risk.
Nor would the need for allies end once the war did. Months, if not years, will pass before Iraq is ready to govern itself, and a quick American withdrawal would be a disaster. A multinational peacekeeping force that midwifed that transition would ease the strain on the U.S. military, lessen the bill for the American taxpayer and defuse the perception that the United States intends to colonize Iraq. But few countries are likely to pitch in if they believe that Washington rushed into an unnecessary war.
Faced with these competing risks, President Bush made the right choice. He now faces the challenging task of making his strategy work. He must keep up the pressure on Baghdad without looking as if any excuse for war will do.
The key to threading that needle is to draw clear red lines beyond which Saddam will not be allowed to go. Washington should ignore what Baghdad says and focus instead on what it does. If Iraq prevents or substantially interferes with the work of UN weapons inspectors, that should be a cause for war.
But if Baghdad allows the weapons inspections to proceed and agrees to the destruction of any weapons stocks or production facilities they find, Washington should hold off on military action. Our primary national interest lies in seeing Iraq disarmed of its weapons of mass destruction; we should therefore be prepared to take yes for an answer.
We will not know for some time if weapons inspections will succeed. It is clear, however, that by going this route, President Bush has created an opportunity to achieve America's key objectives in Iraq at a minimal cost. And if it becomes necessary for the United States to fight, he will have wisely laid the groundwork for a war that will enjoy substantial international legitimacy and support.