The U.N. is still playing Saddam's game.
Now that Osama Bin Laden, or at any rate his organization, has officially denied that an intervention in Iraq would be a distraction from the war on terror, the time may have come for a brisk cleanup in the prewar "fighting words" department. No doubt new terms will soon be in play, but here is a wrap-up on the old ones.
"Material breach" and "inspections": Up until now, these expressions have regularly been employed in the wrong order. The Saddam Hussein regime has been, since 1992, in a continuous state of material breach of all its obligations to disarm. It was for this reason that a new resolution was passed by the Security Council of the United Nations, demanding that the decadelong breach be repaired. One has not yet run into anybody who believes that Saddam made any attempt to comply with the terms of the resolution, which indeed he did not. But one does hear the platonic theory that he might come into compliance, if only given more time. He happens to want more time for quite other reasons, so Hans Blix's disclosure that he might be undergoing "a change of heart" is an especially touching one.
Faced with all these material breaches, including conclusive evidence that the Iraqi authorities know when they are dropping by and where, the "inspectors" have to admit that they have become the objects of inspection rather than the conductors of it. In fact, it's glaringly apparent that their ranks have been infiltrated, or suborned, or both. I know of at least one incontrovertible case where a senior inspector was offered a huge bribe by Tariq Aziz himself: The man in question refused the money, but obviously not everybody did. Those who are calling for "more time" in this process should be aware that they are calling for more time for Saddam's people to complete their humiliation and subversion of the inspectors.
Colin Powell, who has been getting good press for getting good press (the highest honor that American culture can bestow), can be faulted for at least one and perhaps two of his recent performances. The first was the welcome he gave to the idea of a safe haven for Saddam Hussein, thus greatly weakening the moral basis for the claim of "regime change." The second, arguably, was when he took his classified evidence and presented it to the United Nations. Paradoxically, this triumphant piece of public relations undermined the authority of the unanimous Security Council resolution it was designed to invoke. The resolution places the onus squarely on Iraq to prove that it has complied. There is no mention in the resolution of any requirement for the international community to furnish more evidence. Inspection is the term of art employed to describe the monitoring of compliance, not the unearthing of empirical proofs. As it happens, more empirical proofs have been unearthed, but no investigation, in the strict sense, has been carried out. If the United Nations was to call for an investigation of Iraq's arsenal, complete with inventory and accounting, it would logically have to call for the dispatch of armed peacekeepers, at the very least, in order to ensure access. Such a job could never be carried out by a small posse of civilians. And, given the square mileage of Iraq, the number of those armed peacekeepers would have to be pretty high.
This would not be an invasion by most definitions, but it would very much resemble an occupation. And that raises the question of the most central of all the fighting words, "War." Are we in fact talking about going to "war" at all? During the 1956 Anglo-French-Israeli attack upon Egypt, the preposterous British prime minister, Sir Anthony Eden, told Parliament that "we are not at war with Egypt. We are in a state of armed conflict." This was an obvious attempt to deny reality at a time when the Soviet Union, moreover, was threatening to intervene on Egypt's side.
But is it frivolous to ask whether the use of force in Iraq amounts to war in, say, the Vietnam sense of the term? "Stop the war before it starts" was the rather fatuous slogan of the peaceniks in the case of Afghanistan in 2001, and their plaintive slogan was echoed in reality because the "war" was over almost before it had begun. A war involves a minimum of two nations deploying their armed forces against each other: This could be only a technically apt description of hostilities as between the United States and its allies and the private army of Saddam Hussein. It would be just as accurate to say, "No quarrel with Saddam Hussein," as it would be to say, "No war on Iraq." And it might not be a euphemism to describe the impending event as a forcible removal of a hostile regime. It would certainly be at least as accurate as a description of the political objective.
This may seem like giving a hostage to fortune, but Saddam Hussein's armed forces mainly ran away or surrendered last time, and his air force had to be lent to Iran (which failed to return it), and there has been considerable degeneration in the morale and equipment of these forces since. The best that can be said of the Iraqi army is that it has not recently lost a war against its own civilians. Meanwhile, the evolution of PGMs—precision-guided munitions—makes it rational to hope that this distinction between combatant and computer can be observed on our side.
Next week I'd like to make the closing case for why this war, if it is to be so-called, would deserve to be called "just."
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.