Opponents of President Bush's policy of effecting regime change in Iraq have increasingly coalesced around the idea that the United States must secure the assent of the United Nations Security Council before doing anything about Saddam Hussein.
While some claim this step would legitimate and facilitate redress of the danger posed by Saddam's weapons of mass destruction -- as one put it "The road to Baghdad is through New York" -- the reality is very different: The road to the Security Council is a dead end, and is favored by many precisely for that reason.
Twelve years ago, things were different. Then-President George H.W. Bush was unsure of his ability to muster a majority in Congress for undertaking the liberation of Kuwait and sought the support of the international community to improve his chances. Due to etraordinary circumstances not present at the moment -- notably the Kremlin's internal preoccupation as the Soviet Union unraveled and the fact of Iraq had invaded its neighbor -- no vetoes were cast as the Security Council approved steps to repulse the Iraqi occupiers and restore peace and stability to the Gulf.
Of course, such circumstances do not apply today. This time around, Russia, China and possibly France would be likely to thwart any American request for U.N. authorization to bring down Saddam. Each sees him less as a rogue actor than a rich client. They would rather see sanctions lifted so as to increase his purchasing power than have him replaced by someone less interested in buying their arms and other products. And today, Congress is likely to support Mr. Bush with or without the U.N.'s blessing.
To be sure, those insisting that the Bush administration pursue the U.N. option profess a willingness to provide a blessing, after a fashion. They assert that the Security Council would vote for another resolution, albeit one demanding that Iraq accept intrusive, even "anywhere-anytime" inspections. In the event Saddam did not acquiesce this "last" time, we are assured, it would provide a casus belli that would enjoy widespread, if not universal, international support. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle avers that such an affirmation would also increase his willingness to contemplate endorsing any U.S. action against Iraq.
The only problem with this gambit is that it will not work. In the first place, it is not clear that the veto-wielders on the Security Council would actually go along with a resolution insisting on "anywhere-anytime" inspections either, especially if they are persuaded that the U.S. will be unable to move against Saddam absent such diplomatic cover.
Second, even if, against all odds, the Security Council does throw down the gauntlet to Saddam, he is virtually certain to allow intrusive inspections to resume rather than giving the U.S. a pretext for internationally supported action against him. This is so, notwithstanding the antics of various Iraqi spokesmen to the effect that their government would never accept a resumption of such inspections, for two reasons:
1. Time is Saddam's friend and the U.S.' enemy; the more he has, the more certain it is that he will acquire a nuclear deterrent and the less likely the U.S. will be able to muster the will domestically and the support internationally to try to topple him.
2. Saddam has more experience than anybody else on the planet in defeating even the most intrusive practicable inspection regime. He has done it before, by misdirection, subterfuge, uncooperativeness, concealment and other deceptiveness. He will surely be even better able to do it again, having had the past few years to squirrel away his weapons of mass destruction programs and cover his tracks.
This reality has prompted the indefatigable optimists in the arms control community to conjure up a new scheme -- "coercive inspections."
The idea would be to put as many as 50,000 heavily armed U.S. and international troops into Iraq for the purpose of ensuring that the inspectors could actually go anywhere anytime they wanted.
This is a truly hare-brained idea. In the first place, the problem is not breaking down doors. Rather it is knowing which doors -- or more accurately, which hardened-concrete barriers protecting deeply buried covert bunkers -- have something of interest behind them. The previous inspectors were defeated more by the lack of such knowledge than by physical interference from Saddam's goons (although there was plenty of that, too).
It is hard to believe that the notion of coercive inspections would be attractive to those who evince such concern about the risks to the lives of our men and women in uniform should they have to confront the Iraqi military or, alternatively, about the costs associated with doing so and then with having to stay on in Iraq for a protracted period. Putting 50,000 troops on the ground for the purposes of picking fights with Saddam's forces is a formula for a fiasco that would make "Blackhawk Down" look like a church social. It would probably end either with a humiliating extraction of the international inspectorate under fire or a full-scale war aimed at rescuing them under conditions that are sure to be less than optimal.
To his credit, President Bush seems to have maintained the steadiness of purpose that has generally characterized his performance as Commander-in-Chief since Sept. 11. As he prepares to address the U.N. next week about the nature of the war on terrorism that formally began on that day, he needs to make clear that the U.S. will not allow itself to be coerced into a U.N. cul-de-sac, or worse. He can ensure that we have maximum international support by, instead, making it clear that the U.S. has the capability, the will and the determination to act, if necessary, alone to prevent Saddam Hussein from metastasizing into a for more dangerous threat to all of us.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. held senior positions in the Reagan Defense Department. He is currently president of the Center for Security Policy.