Saddam's ploys and how to beat them.

Saddam's ploys and how to beat them.

Saddam's ploys and how to beat them.

Politics and policy.
Nov. 19 2002 6:58 PM

Bagh of Tricks

Saddam's ploys and how to beat them.

On Monday, U.N. weapons inspectors arrived in Baghdad to begin examining Saddam Hussein's arsenal. Everyone hopes the inspections will avert war. But before concluding that the Iraqi problem is going away, let's consider how Saddam foisted that illusion on us last time and how we can avoid getting snookered again. Here are 10 rules to keep in mind.

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1. Don't declare victory. That's the mistake the Persian Gulf War coalition made in 1991. The easiest way to lose is to think you've won when you haven't. To escape justice and preserve his weapons, Saddam doesn't have to beat us. He just has to make us conclude prematurely that he's been disarmed.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

2. Don't mistake means for ends. Many people expressed relief on Nov. 8 when the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution ordering Iraq to submit to inspections. But resolutions aren't the goal. Inspections aren't the goal. Disarmament is the goal. If resolutions don't achieve inspections, or if inspections don't achieve disarmament, force must follow.

3. Don't leave gaps. Loopholes in agreements are often easy to spot. The less visible and more exploitable problem is gaps in time. Every delay between transgression and punishment gives the Security Council time to waver and gives Saddam time to renegotiate. That's why President Bush wanted the Council's resolution to authorize immediate military action if Iraq reneged. If the Council orders troops to Iraq, Saddam will use the same ruse: When the troops arrive, he'll try to call a timeout.

4. Don't negotiate. Chief weapons inspector Hans Blix has begun talks with Saddam's representatives about compliance. Haggling with Saddam goes like this: He shoots a rock through your window. You tell him to hand over his slingshot. He says he will if you'll give him $2. You give him a dollar. He says that hardly seems fair, why not throw in an extra 80 cents. You give him 40 cents. He asks for another quarter, you give him a dime, he asks for another nickel, and so on. As long as you're splitting the difference, the game goes on. You have to stop talking and grab him by the collar.

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5. Don't try to be fair. Already, Blix is reassuring Middle Eastern reporters that he'll be fair to Iraq. Bad idea. At a minimum, fairness implies that Iraq is entitled to unspecified considerations, which Saddam will be happy to specify. At worst, fairness implies even-handedness, obscuring the difference between perpetrator and victim.

6. Don't hold out for cooperation. Blix said he was going to Baghdad this week to seek "cooperation with the Iraqis." That's asking for trouble. If everyone agrees to do the right thing, great. But if not, and if you can do it by yourself, go ahead. If you insist on Iraqi cooperation, you give Saddam the power to set terms by withholding cooperation. Ditto for France, Russia, China, and the rest of the Security Council. If Bush had insisted on getting the council's cooperation in demanding new inspections, he would never have gotten it. He got it by making clear that if he didn't get it, he'd go to war.

7. Keep the burden on Saddam. If you show Saddam a photo of himself holding a canister of nerve gas, he'll say he's gotten rid of the gas since you took the photo. If you try to get into his basement to show that he's still got the gas, he'll block the door. That's his strategy: to make evidence collection your problem. Four years ago, he succeeded: U.N. inspectors left Iraq because he wouldn't let them do their job. To avoid that mistake, we have to make evidence collection Saddam's problem. Bush has done so by making clear that he'll disarm Iraq by force unless inspectors disarm it peacefully. Blix says effective inspections are "in the Iraqi interest" because "otherwise, they would not be credible." But the only reason Iraq cares whether the inspections are credible is that if they aren't, Bush will strike.

8. Don't let Saddam enlarge the issue. On Monday, Bush's spokesman accused Iraq of violating the U.N. resolution by shooting at planes patrolling the no-fly zones. That's what Saddam wants us to do: zoom out from the offense on which everybody agrees—Iraq's weapons of mass destruction—to a broader debate over American military activity in Iraq. Blix has worsened the problem by suggesting that his inspections could lead to "a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East." Saddam would love to drag Arabs and Muslims into his fight by making his disarmament contingent on Israel's.

9. Don't let Saddam erase history. We spared him in the Persian Gulf War in exchange for his agreement to inspections. Then he dragged his heels on the inspections, and after a few years, everyone forgot the original deal. Inspections began to look like a favor he was doing us. They aren't. They're his probation in lieu of being toppled. If he violates probation, we have to follow through.

10. Don't separate diplomacy from force. When the Security Council passed its resolution, pundits and foreign leaders congratulated Secretary of State Colin Powell for leading the administration's diplomacy camp to victory over its war camp. But if the hawks hadn't been noisily preparing for war, the diplomats wouldn't have obtained the resolution. If Iraq cooperates with the inspectors in the weeks ahead, people will say that it shows military power isn't necessary. In fact, it will show the opposite.