The Bush administration's hard-sell campaign to persuade other nations to back an invasion of Iraq was in trouble Friday on two fronts: different standards of evidence and perhaps irreconcilably different political timetables.
Fundamentally, the ideological rift between the United States and its reluctant allies isn't about the use of force but about the burden of proof.
Speaking to an international economic forum in Switzerland on Friday, Richard Haass, the State Department's director of policy planning, said Washington is convinced that the U.N. weapons inspection process is flawed because Iraq is hiding information about its chemical and biological weapons.
But he acknowledged: "We have not convinced public opinion of it.... I sit here understanding all too well that we have yet to persuade the international community of where things stand."
The administration argues that U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, approved in November, puts the burden on Iraq to prove that it doesn't have concealed weapons of mass destruction. President Bush and his aides tried to hammer that argument home this week.
But by week's end, France, Germany, China and Russia had lined up against war as long as weapons inspectors still have hope of forcing Iraq to disarm, arguing that absent a "smoking gun," there is insufficient evidence of an imminent threat from Baghdad to justify war. Even Britain, Washington's closest ally, wants to give inspectors more time to find proscribed weapons or proof that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is trying to hide them.
The insistence that inspections are working and should continue -- possibly for months -- clearly frustrated administration officials.
"It's a question of whether or not we're looking for a needle in a haystack, or whether [Hussein] was supposed to open up the haystack and show us the needle," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said this week. "What has happened to all the anthrax? All the botulinum? To the chemical warheads? Things keep getting discovered that he should have brought forth earlier."
But the French, as well as a growing number of U.S. skeptics, argue that rather than rushing to invade Iraq, it would be wiser and more politic in terms of world opinion to pursue a highly intrusive, no-holds-barred inspection process. Call it "containment through inspections."
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, speaking at the U.N. on Monday, argued that although the inspectors had not disarmed Hussein, they had made it impossible for him to continue work on weapons of mass destruction, containing him so effectively that an immediate resort to war was risky and unjustifiable.
Likewise, two independent assessments released this week by dovish think tanks, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Fourth Freedom Forum, conclude that Iraq is already effectively contained.
With tens of thousands of U.S. troops within striking distance and more than 100 inspectors, eight helicopters and the world's most sophisticated monitoring equipment combing its territory, Iraq is unable to produce nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, the reports assert.
"Saddam Hussein is in an iron box," wrote Joseph Cirincione, one of the authors of the Carnegie report.
"A U.S. invasion -- with or without a coalition behind it -- is going to spawn a massive new wave of recruits into terrorist ranks," he said in an interview. Containment for up to a year is cheaper and safer than war, reconstruction and occupation of Iraq, he argued.
But State Department spokesman Richard Boucher vehemently rejected the idea that the weapons inspectors could be counted on to indefinitely prevent the Iraqis from continuing work on their weapons.
The Iraqis continued the work "in the '80s when the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors were going around the country," Boucher said. "They did in the '90s when the UNSCOM inspectors were going around the country. They did for the last five years when there were no inspectors in the country."
In fact, one of the earlier "smoking guns" found by weapons inspectors was a trove of 700,000 documents unearthed on a chicken farm in 1995, four years into the previous inspection regime. The papers showed that Iraq's germ warfare program was far more advanced than anyone knew. Iraq had been insisting that although it had produced biological agents, it had never weaponized them.
The papers were discovered not by fine sleuthing by the inspectors but because Hussein's son-in-law, who owned the farm, defected to Jordan and spilled the beans about the program. (The son-in-law later returned to Iraq and was killed.)
Although the documents referred to Iraqi biological weapons development that took place in the 1980s, before U.N. inspectors arrived, a senior administration official this week cited the chicken farm incident as an example of the folly of the argument that all that's needed to deter and contain Hussein is more time for the weapons inspections to work.
"Just when they were about to declare him clean, we got the chicken farm documents and found out he was running a bioweapons program far bigger than anyone thought," the official said. "So, yes, he can run a program on the side, even when the inspectors are going around.
"If the question is, 'Why now?' the answer is, 'Because right now he is blocking disarmament and he is trying to hamper it,' " the official added. "At some point, we have to be true to our word. Better sooner than later."
But the French argue that the United States should think about the precedent that cutting short inspections in Iraq might set. As the administration embarks on a global campaign to make sure that the world's most dangerous regimes do not have the world's most dangerous weapons, questioning the effectiveness of inspections in Iraq may have the unintended consequence of undermining future U.N. arms inspections, said a French official who asked not to be identified.
"It's a question of credibility, and it's a question of protecting the inspections regime in other parts of the world," the French official said. "When you have to deal with weapons of mass destruction, you don't have many options: sanctions, inspections and war. If you don't give credit to inspections, you might regret it someday somewhere else in the world."
France does not advocate keeping inspectors in Iraq forever, nor has it ruled out the use of force as an ultimate resort, the official said. But inspections should be given more than 60 days to produce results, the official said.
Former weapons inspector Jonathan Tucker charged that the administration has offered so many different rationales for invading Iraq, "we don't know what the real one is. If it's really about weapons, then I think that a containment strategy should at least be attempted."
Tucker, now a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, argued that the question is whether a credible military threat to invade Iraq could be maintained long enough for a comprehensive -- perhaps even semi-permanent -- inspection regime.
Existing U.N. Security Council resolutions do provide authorization to keep inspectors in Iraq, even if it no longer maintains stockpiles of weapons, to monitor dual-use facilities and prevent reconstitution of old arms, he said.
"If Iraq can be disarmed, or at least defanged, through inspections, that is vastly preferable to the enormous costs and devastation and casualties of military action," Tucker said.
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War of words on Iraq
"I personally believe as a lawyer that you have to put maximum restraint on the use of force," he said. "Because otherwise, where do you draw the line? Where do you stop the preemption? Do you have preemption of the preemption?"
Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency
"It is better for them [the Americans] to keep themselves away from us. Because if they come, Sept. 11 -- which they are crying over and see as a big thing -- will be a real picnic for them, God willing."
Uday Hussein, son of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein
"It's a question of whether or not we're looking for a needle in a haystack, or whether [Hussein] was supposed to open up the haystack and show us the needle. What has happened to all the anthrax? All the botulinum? To the chemical warheads? Things keep getting discovered that he should have brought forth earlier."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell