Saddam Hussein has failed to come clean. His denial of possessing any weapons of mass destruction makes that clear, even though the experts have not completed their review of Iraq's weapons declaration.
As former U.S. government officials who had access to the most sensitive U.S. intelligence on Iraq, we are well aware of Iraq's continued efforts to retain and enhance its weapons capabilities. Even unclassified sources have shown that Hussein has a lot of explaining to do. Thousands of tons of precursor chemicals for chemical warfare agents, thousands of liters of biological warfare agents and hundreds of munitions remain unaccounted for. Nor has Iraq bothered to explain other evidence of its cheating, such as the inspectors' discovery of prohibited Russian missile gyroscopes hidden in a river and a log book that showed that Iraq used far fewer chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war than it had claimed, thereby leaving a large gap between the chemical munitions it was known to possess and those that had been used or destroyed.
Given that Hussein has chosen not to use his last chance to disarm, how should the United States respond?
One approach would be to allow the inspections to play out for a few more months in the hope that the inspectors could catch the Iraqis in additional lies or that interviews of Iraqi scientists could lead the inspectors to some of Hussein's hidden stash. The hope would be that such additional evidence would persuade more countries to participate in a war coalition.
Alternately, the U.S. could use the false Iraqi declaration as the cause for war. This would not require the U.S. to declare Iraq in material breach now and show its hand prematurely. The U.S. military is not quite ready for war, nor has U.S. diplomacy nailed down support from all the countries that should be part of a coalition.
Rather, the Bush administration could take the time it needs to "study" the Iraqi declaration, discussing its falsehoods and fabrications with allied governments until it has lined up all the necessary political and military ducks. Once the best case has been made and the preparations completed (probably in a few weeks), President Bush could announce that, in accordance with United Nations Resolution 1441, we and our allies have concluded that Iraq is in material breach of the 1991 cease-fire resolution and therefore the U.S. will lead a coalition to disarm Iraq by force.
If there must be war, this is the best way. The problem with allowing the inspections to play themselves out is that it is a policy based on hope, and as Secretary of State Colin Powell is fond of saying, "hope is not a plan."
Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix and International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohammed Baradei have repeatedly resisted U.S. efforts to direct their activities and demurred from exercising the more aggressive powers that the U.N. resolution allows them because their interest lies in encouraging Iraqi cooperation, not serving as the trigger for a war.
Moreover, neither the U.S. intelligence community nor the inspectors have or are likely to come into possession of the necessary intelligence that would uncover Iraq's prohibited weaponry or production facilities through this process. This has been our problem since the mid-1990s: We have plenty of intelligence that Iraq has prohibited items, but no reliable indications of where they are hidden. Spiriting Iraqi scientists out of the country might help, but some are likely to be missing, others unwilling to leave, and the rest might fear for loved ones left behind.
Rather than pressuring Blix to pursue an unworkable approach, the Bush administration's purposes would be better served by publishing the large amount of information that has already been collected from earlier defections of Iraqi scientists, even in sanitized form. Their evidence was always the most valuable intelligence we were able to collect.
There is real risk in allowing the inspections to run on indefinitely. The longer the inspections go on and find nothing, the harder it will be for the U.S. to build a coalition when we finally decide to take action.
War must always be the last resort, and certainly there is more preparatory work to be done to minimize its risks and costs. But Hussein has just made it clear again that the only way to effectively disarm his regime is to overthrow it.
That leaves the president with a choice between war sooner and war later.
Indefinite inspections will only make the inevitable more difficult.