Two Hail Marys.

A mostly political Weblog.
March 17 2003 5:56 AM

Two Hail Marys

Plus: WaPo wobbles, sort of, maybe.

(Continued from Page 3)

Don't Rush Me VI: The Grand Gesture Slate's Fred Kaplan definitively joins the Balking Hawks,endorsing a proposal (by the "six undecideds" on the Security Council) to postpone a war for 45 days or so, while in the meantime imposing a detailed timetable for disarmament on Saddam. The two main problems with this idea are obvious.

1) Costs of delay: "What's the harm in holding off an invasion, even for several months," Kaplan asks -- answering that our troops "would have to wait around and possibly fight in the summer heat." But that severely underestimates the costs, which include a) a continued economic slump due to the continued uncertainty about events in the Middle East; b) an inability to transfer military assets to the Korean theater; c) giving Saddam months more time to set in place various doomsday boobytraps and revenge schemes; and d) courting unrest in host Arab states where our troops' presence is considered an affront.

I'd argue that these costs would be worth paying if we could be sure, at the end of the delay, that either Saddam would be permanently disarmed or we'd be fighting a war with U.N. backing. (The point, to answer Stuart Taylor's objection, isn't to satisfy the technical legal requirements of international law; it's to play by a set of rules that, as a practical matter, will win us international support and "avoid setting the wrong precedent," as Kenneth Pollack, patron saint of this particular war, puts it.)

The trouble is we probably can't be sure of having the U.N.'s backing ,even after a 45 day delay. That's because of the other obvious problem ...

2) Automaticity: What happens, under Kaplan's compromise, if Saddam fails to meet his timetable? Can we just attack, or do we have to go back to the Security Council and subject ourselves again to France and its veto? If it's the latter, it's not clear we've gotten very much by waiting. Yet the French say they'll never agree to any sort of automatic trigger. Kaplan admits at the end of his piece that this is where his deal probably breaks down.

What's needed, it seems, is (as Josh Marshall suggests) an American gesture of humility grand enough to allow Bush a face-saving way of appearing intentionally noble, while giving the French a symbolic victory -- in exchange for which we'd get their advance approval of an attack in the long run. The formula of trading delay for automaticity seems like a good one --  but to have a shot at success, given the current U.N. mood, it will have to be a very big delay. Forty-five days won't do the trick. How about 9 months? That would get us through the summer no-fight zone. During that period, a beefed up inspection regime would keep Saddam from making progress on the nuclear front, and maybe even find the sort of banned WMD that could set off the automatic war trigger. The inspectors' job could even be expanded to include hunting for and dismantling "doomsday" anti-invasion boobytraps -- including bombs on Iraqi oil rigs.

True, we'd have to keep most of our troops on Saddam's border, guns cocked. But we might be able to transfer at least some military assets -- e.g. ships and planes -- to Korea for a crucial few months. We'd also have to live with economic uncertainty through the summer. But we can handle it. The Arab states would have to live with potential popular outrage at U.S. troops for a few more months; they won't be happy but presumably they can handle it too.

In the long run, the delay would be worth it -- again, for practical reasons (less blowback, better precedent), not for technical international-law reasons. As Pollack notes, we already have a reasonable legal argument that an attack now is authorized by the same grant of U.N. authority that allowed the 1991 Gulf War -- a grant that authorizes the U.S. and others to enforce "all subsequent relevant resolutions."

If after 9 months the inspections regime is falling apart, we'll be in real trouble -- and, for that reason, we'll have a valid self-defense argument and can move unilaterally to neutralize the Iraqi threat just as the Israelis moved against the Osirak reactor in 1981.

P.S.: The offer of a long delay could be a public, transparent American proposal, unveiled with suitable drama. France, Russia, and China might still turn it down, but that would be harder than turning down a similar proposal made in private. If they did, we'd be no worse off than before -- except they'd look bad and we'd look better. Looking better to the world, remember, is part of what we've been trying to achieve by getting the U.N.'s blessing. Since it translates into fewer terrorists trying to kill us, it would be a small victory in itself.

P.P.S.: Yes, this is basically the same idea as Thomas Friedman's proposal  in tomorrow's NYT. He suggests a Bush trip to Europe as an effective, non-humbling-yet-humble gesture. ...

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