War is certain: The president all but says so, as does the commentariat. Slate's "Saddameter" puts the odds at 99 percent. It's all the more intriguing, then, that a flurry of last-minute negotiations has overtaken the U.N. Security Council in recent days. The effect of this could a) delay the onset of war significantly; b) lend the war greater legitimacy if it happens; or—less likely but not utterly out of the question—c) disarm Iraq, gradually, slowly, but verifiably, through means other than war.
It all started a few weeks ago, when the Canadian foreign ministry floated a memo through the council, via Mexico and Chile (which are among the 10 nonpermanent members), suggesting two ideas that might "bridge the gap" dividing the five permanent members (United States/U.K. versus France/Russia/China). First, the memo said, delay the deadlines for all ultimatums to Iraq. (It suggested March 28, but only as an example.) Second, in the meantime, create a set of "guideposts" along the way; Iraq must release this information by such and such a date, start dismantling those weapons by two weeks later, etc. If Iraq fails to meet any one of these interim deadlines, then "serious consequences" ensue; if it meets the demands, the process continues, with a progressively beefed-up force of inspectors.
Initially, the United States and Britain rejected the notion—too much time, too little chance of effectiveness. But then, Russia floated a version of its own, which among other things also proposed placing U.N. troops on Iraqi territory to enforce the inspections and the disarmament. (According to one source, Yevgeny Primakov, Russia's former prime minister, discussed just such a proposal during his meeting two weeks ago with Saddam Hussein.) Last week, after realizing that he would face serious defections in his party and government if he went to war in explicit defiance of the Security Council, British Prime Minister Tony Blair joined the pack, calling for a deadline first of March 17, then the end of March, and linking the deferral of combat to the accomplishment of specific "guideposts." Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, has drawn up a list of 29 "clusters" of unresolved issues that Iraq needs to address. Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, has been working with Blix to translate those clusters into guideposts. Finally, today, the "six undecideds"—the members of the Security Council that officially have not made up their minds about which side to take (Mexico, Chile, Pakistan, Cameroon, Guinea, and Angola)—proposed extending the deadline for 45 days, again with guideposts that Iraq must meet in the meantime.
The British and Americans are currently protesting that 45 days is too long, but Blair will probably sign on to this proposal, or co-opt it, if it stands a good chance of winning a majority of votes on the council and his own compromise doesn't. In that case, President Bush will probably have to endorse it, too: better to wait a while longer than to see his most solid ally face a vote of no-confidence and possibly be replaced by a new prime minister who has a clear mandate to view American policy more skeptically, to say the least. (The fact that Bush has gone back to the United Nations for a second resolution at all is entirely due to his special relationship with Blair.)
Bush would have other reasons for going along. The most basic is that his own diplomatic sandstorm will thicken considerably if his pro-war "coalition of the willing" ends up including only Spain, Australia, and a few nations of the former Warsaw Pact. In any event, if the U.S.-British-Spanish resolution now on the table gets voted down or vetoed (as seems almost certain), and then an alternative resolution with a longer deadline (offered by Russia, Chile, or whomever) gets approved, can Bush really—in good conscience or simply sound pragmatism—pronounce the Security Council "irrelevant" and let loose the dogs of war?
There are risks in acceding to these new, more extended resolutions. The feuding within the council could stretch on for months, the mutual hostilities hardening, and the noose around Saddam loosening with every delay. The question must be asked, though: Do these concerns justify outright rejection of a compromise? What's the harm in holding off an invasion, even for several months? Yes, it would mean U.S. troops, many of them reservists, have to wait around and possibly fight in the summer heat. But logistical timetables shouldn't govern military decisions (that was how nations plunged into World War I), and inconvenience is never a good rationale for war. Nor has anyone argued that Saddam or his stockpiles constitute an imminent threat. In his Los Angeles Times column last Sunday, William Arkin, whose sources inside war-planning circles are the envy of every Pentagon reporter, wrote that U.S. Air Force officers have serious doubts whether Iraq's biochemical stockpiles are militarily useful. (Here's a nightmare scenario: We invade Iraq, emerge victorious, and install a friendly government, whose officials then tell us, "Oh, by the way, we've hunted around for all Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, and there don't seem to be any.")
On the other hand, accepting one of the alternative proposals offers considerable advantages to all but the most inveterate hawks and doves. Setting specific goals and firm deadlines—which U.N. Resolution 1441, possibly by design, failed to do—will put everyone to the test. Saddam won't be able to wriggle free by issuing a decree here and dismantling a weapon of his own choosing there. Hans Blix will not be able to say, "The Iraqis are obstructing here, but cooperating there." The question will be binary—"Have they accomplished the specified task by the specified date, yes or no?" By the same standard, the French and Russians will no longer be able to tout the cooperation and ignore the obstructions, nor will the Americans be able to do the reverse. Which may mean, of course, that this resolution, too, will break down—at least if Jacques Chirac wants peace, and George Bush war, at any price.