Prevention, Not Pre-emption

Daryl G. Kimball

Yielding to pressure from members of Congress and major U.S. allies, President George W. Bush made the common sense decision to appeal to the United Nations to address the chronic problem of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs. As a result of the renewed international focus on its unfulfilled obligations to comply with UN Security Council disarmament resolutions, Baghdad agreed to allow UN inspectors back in the country “without conditions.”

But this is only the beginning of a difficult process. Now, all the key players must give the weapons inspectors the time, authority, and support necessary to allow them to freely operate in a manner that can eliminate and prevent the re-emergence of Iraq’s proscribed weapons programs. Over the course of the next few weeks, the sincerity of Bush’s appeal to the United Nations, the will of the Security Council to uphold nonproliferation norms, and Iraq’s willingness to cooperate will be tested.

Despite Iraq’s past history of deceit and obstruction, in 1999 the United Nations assessed that “the bulk of Iraq’s proscribed weapons programmes has been eliminated” by the previous inspections regime. But Iraq’s past behavior makes it clear that the Security Council should deliver a new resolution outlining more effective conditions for Iraqi compliance.

The Security Council should insist that Iraq provide, in a timely manner, a full and accurate declaration of its current and past weapons activities, that inspections rules should be changed to allow for a freer exchange of intelligence on prohibited weapons, and that interviews with Iraqi scientists be free of intimidation. UN inspectors must be also allowed to conduct inspections anytime and anywhere, including “presidential sites.”

In addition, the Security Council should clarify that the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—not Washington—should determine whether and when Iraq fails to meet the requirements of a strengthened inspections regime. If Iraq repeats its past pattern of blatant noncooperation, the council should authorize the use of force only to ensure the safety of the inspectors and the completion of their mission. Furthermore, because the work of the inspectors will take time to complete properly, the Security Council (and Iraq) must not set arbitrary deadlines for the inspection process.

Quick action is needed, but the evidence presented thus far does not suggest that Iraqi weapons capabilities pose an imminent threat that warrants immediate military action. Though Iraq apparently possesses dangerous chemical and biological weapons capabilities, the British government estimates that even if Iraq could obtain fissile material and other essential components from foreign sources, it would still need at least 1-2 years to build a nuclear device. Clearly, there is the time and the need to commence inspections.

Because Russia, France, and China eroded vital support for earlier UN inspections, they now have a special responsibility to help craft a resolution calling for inspections under new and more effective rules. In light of recent Bush administration statements, however, they are right to be concerned that Washington is seeking a resolution that is cynically designed to trigger and justify a pre-emptive invasion aimed at “regime change” in Baghdad.

Since the president’s UN speech, administration officials have said that disarming Iraq is only a part of their aim, which is ultimately to remove Saddam Hussein from power. The White House initially asked Congress to give the president authorization “to use all means that he determines to be appropriate, including force,” to enforce UN resolutions and “restore international peace and security in the region.”

Such language would amount to a blank check for US military adventurism well beyond the core issue of getting rid of Iraq’s prohibited weapons programs. In light of Bush administration nuclear-use policy, it could also leave the door open to US nuclear strikes in retaliation for Iraqi chemical or biological attack or to the preemptive destruction of suspected weapons caches. Two weapons of mass destruction wrongs do not make a right.

Given the likely human toll of an all-out war and the current status of Iraq’s weapons programs, for now the most prudent and feasible means to deny Saddam Hussein access to weapons of mass destruction is a strategy of multilateral prevention through effective UN weapons inspections. If, on the other hand, President Bush is really seeking UN approval for regime change through a preemptive unilateral attack, he will have undermined the very institutions and the norms against weapons of mass destruction he seeks to enforce. In the long run, such an approach will increase, not decrease, global weapons threats.