The UN weapons inspectors' report to the Security Council yesterday emphasized Iraq's continued failure to cooperate fully.
"Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance, not even today," said chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix, "of the disarmament which was demanded of it."
More time alone will not resolve the problem. Without Baghdad's active cooperation, even doubling or tripling the number of UN inspectors is unlikely to produce concrete evidence that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction or the means to produce them. War now seems inevitable.
In his State of the Union address to the nation tonight, President George W. Bush is sure to make that case. He will argue that 10 weeks ago the United Nations gave Saddam Hussein a final opportunity to rid Iraq of all weapons of mass destruction. Hussein failed to seize his chance to disarm peacefully.
Bush will point to the numerous ways in which Hussein refuses to cooperate with inspectors. As Blix emphasized, important questions remain about Iraq's inventory of anthrax, VX nerve agent, mustard gas and ballistic missiles. Baghdad has concealed crucial documents, refused to allow its scientists to be interviewed and posed unacceptable conditions on aerial reconnaissance inspections of its territory.
But while war now looks inevitable, the question of timing remains open. In view of the heated rhetoric coming out of the White House this last week, some expect the president to order troops into combat in the next few days. But the administration has good reason to delay the start of war for several weeks.
One is that American troops in the region are not yet up to their full battle strength. As Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week, the U.S. military is ready to attack if so ordered. But attacking now, before all the troops are in the field, could mean harder and bloodier fighting than would be the case when U.S. forces reach full strength later next month.
Another reason for delay is that many of our allies are not yet on board. Last week's spitting match across the Atlantic showed the depth of the divisions. Basic differences persist over the extent of the threat and how best to deal with them. There is deep distrust in foreign capitals over what is perceived as the Bush administration's headlong rush to war.
Even key allies like Britain, who want to be with us, may not be if the run up to war is mishandled. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who meets with President Bush this Friday, insists a new UN resolution authorizing force is needed. Over the weekend he said the only circumstance in which he could envision acting without UN blessing is if inspectors say Iraq is in breach of its obligations and another permanent member of the Security Council "unreasonably exercises their veto and blocks a new resolution."
The growing criticism abroad is undercutting public support at home. Polls consistently show that Americans want the support of other countries. One recent survey found that fewer than three in 10 Americans would support a unilateral U.S. attack.
Equally significant, Americans by a two-to-one ratio favor giving inspectors more time.
With inspections unlikely to force Iraq's disarmament, but with the military still deploying and our allies and the public not yet fully on board for war, what should President Bush do? He could forge ahead alone, gambling that everyone else will follow his lead.
While the public probably would rally around the White House, allied capitals might not. And while Washington can win the war on its own, it needs allied support to win the peace that follows.
Rather than going it alone, Bush should make one last effort to forge a broad international coalition. He can meet his critics half way, and put off an attack until mid-March. This would give Baghdad one last chance to answer the unresolved questions UN inspectors identified in yesterday's report.
In return for giving the inspections more time, the United Nations Security Council would agree to issue an ultimatum: Iraq must resolve every outstanding issue by March 15 or face war.
Given that U.S. troops are not fully deployed, the United States has little to lose and much to gain from such a deal. Accepting a few weeks' delay would answer the criticism that Washington is more interested in war than in disarmament.
Saddam Hussein could still escape his fate if he finally comes clean on his weapons programs, giving some allies hope that war could be avoided. But his failure to do so would leave the allies with no choice but to participate in his ouster.