On Monday, the Iraqi government sent U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan a letter offering "to allow the return of the United Nations weapons inspectors to Iraq without conditions." Annan presented the letter to the U.N. Security Council with great fanfare, and several council members hailed it as a breakthrough. But on closer inspection, Iraq's offer of closer inspection isn't what it purports to be. It's a lesson in how to turn language upside down so that you look like you're accepting the enemy's terms when you're really setting your own.
There is one important concession in Iraq's letter. Last Friday, Iraq was still challenging President Bush to furnish evidence of Iraq's nuclear capability. In the letter issued Monday, however, Iraq accepts that the burden of proof is on itself. Iraq wishes "to remove any doubts that [it] still possesses weapons of mass destruction," according to the letter, and it accepts Annan's suggestion that inspection "is the indispensable first step towards an assurance that Iraq no longer possesses" such weapons. On this premise, failure to satisfy the inspectors would be Iraq's problem, not the United Nations'. If Iraq were to take this premise seriously—a huge if—it would have an incentive to cooperate with inspectors rather than to thwart them.
The rest of Iraq's apparent concessions are clever inversions of American demands. Last Thursday, in his speech to the United Nations, Bush accused Iraq of violating its 1991 promise to grant inspectors "immediate and unrestricted access" to its suspected weapons facilities. In its letter, Iraq appears to accept those terms, inviting the inspectors to return "without conditions." This is the phrase that has prompted so much rejoicing from Annan and the Security Council. But "without conditions" cuts both ways. It omits conditions sought by the United States as well as those sought by Iraq. Bush wants inspectors to return with clear freedom of movement, a clear deadline, and clear authorization for military force to back them up if Iraq obstructs them. Resuming inspections "without conditions" glosses over those demands.
What about the "immediate" access Bush demanded on behalf of inspectors? Iraq appears to accept that as well. "Iraq is ready to discuss the practical arrangements necessary for the immediate resumption of inspections," says the letter. But look again. Iraq doesn't promise immediate inspections. It promises to "discuss" arrangements for such inspections. The word "immediate" is pointless, since Iraq places no limit on how long the discussions could take. Nor does immediate resumption of inspections imply immediate access. Iraq could let the inspectors return today and block their entry to a weapons site tomorrow while it moves boxes of documents out of the building. That was standard practice during previous inspections.
Iraq's third counterfeit offer is acquiescence and closure. Monday's letter tells Annan that in yielding to inspections, Iraq has "responded" to his appeals and his pursuit of "a comprehensive solution" to the Iraq-U.N. standoff. The letter suggests that resumption of inspections will "complete the implementation of the relevant Security Council resolutions." With this, Deputy Iraqi Prime Minister Tariq Aziz declares, "All the reasons for an attack have been eliminated." Annan thanks Bush for having "galvanized the international community," and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov boasts that "through our joint efforts, we have managed to put aside the threat of a war scenario around Iraq and return the process to a political channel."
But when the task at hand is catching a slippery cheat, the easiest way to lose is to think you've won. The minute you think he's beaten, you let up. That's what happened in 1991, when the U.S. government thought Saddam had been crushed. Now Saddam wants the United Nations to jump to the same lazy conclusion, and nearly everyone on the Security Council is eager to oblige him. Iraq's talk of immediate resolution adds to the illusion. Instead of an immediate remedy, we get the immediate pretense of a remedy, and therefore an immediate end to the escalating pressure that was leading us toward a real remedy.
Iraq's letter is one step forward and three steps sideways. Send it back for a rewrite. Clarify the conditions under which inspectors will operate. Spell out a strict timetable for their work and for the military action that will follow if the Iraqi regime gets in their way. And don't turn your back on Saddam until he's dead.