Published on Wednesday, September 18, 2002 in the Guardian/UK
Saddam's Concessions Will Never Be Enough for the US
Unless it can engineer a war, Bush's administration is political roadkill
by Simon Tisdall
To the "man in the street", on whose support Tony Blair and George Bush ultimately depend, it looks like a fair enough offer. For months the US has been huffing and puffing, mouthing and mithering, making waves over Iraq, demanding that it do what Washington wants. Now, finally, it has received a simple answer: yes. So what does the US do? Ask for more.
It is worth recalling how this pseudo-epiphany was reached. The build-up began in earnest with Bush's "axis of evil" speech in January; then came his doctrine of "pre-emptive attack" (what security adviser Condoleezza Rice sweetly calls "anticipatory defense"). Then a startled world learned that "rogue states" holding weapons of mass destruction were more or less on the team with Osama and al-Qaida. That, it transpired, made them legitimate targets for America's "war on terror" and "regime change".
Last week, Bush turned his screw yet more fiercely. If Iraq truly wished peace, he hectored, it must not only agree to full, certified disarmament under UN auspices (and on US terms). It must also swiftly honor all the numerous obligations laid upon it after the Gulf war.
But Iraq's weapons remained the principal focus. Some chemical and biological capability is still most likely at Saddam Hussein's disposal, according to the final reports of the UN inspectors in 1998. He may since have developed more. Scarier still, hawks squawk, Iraq may be only three years, or three months, or who knows, three weeks away from acquiring a nuclear weapon. An image was conjured of the Baghdad bazaar. "Pop round next Tuesday Mr Saddam. Your package will be waiting."
Such angst with all this blethering did Bush and his cohorts inspire. Such discomfiture and war-feverish unease did they spread among European allies such as Blair and his party followers. What strains and stresses stole like shadows of the night over the deserts of the Middle East as Arab allies and foes alike contemplated a coming US onslaught. How greatly did they clamor and cringe, to the delight of the Cheneys and Rumsfelds, Wolfowitzs and Perles. One by one, slinking Saudis followed chapeau-chomping French into the American sheepfold.
And then, after all this hot and bother fuss, suddenly and out of the blue, even before General Tommy Franks, the wannabe "Stormin' Norman", has unpacked his Qatar camp bed, Iraq simply says "OK". To all these provocations, Baghdad puts a timely stopper.
Nor is there any doubting the popularity of Saddam's shift, enough to make the White House sick. Security council members declare themselves encouraged. Russia looks forward to a political settlement and an end to threats of war. China discerns a positive sign. Backsliding Germany's Joschka Fischer rubs it in with a told-you-so about the efficacy of the UN-centered, multilateral approach. Even in London, predictions fly suggesting that war, if it comes, has now been put back a year, that Bush and Blair are split over how to proceed, and that Downing Street will be blamed by US hardliners for steering their president up a diplomatic blind alley. Some Muslim countries, meanwhile, demand a lifting of sanctions.
Worse still, the no-strings nature of Iraq's riposte has plain-spoken appeal. And to the "man in the street", increasingly bowed, browbeaten and bamboozled by the government's line (as polls show) but now relieved and hopeful, it seems reasonable. After all, what more do these people want?
Quite a lot, actually, and the Bushmen's demands will increase rather than diminish as yesterday's momentary flummoxing fades. The gap between what America might wisely do, and what it really does, may yet grow schismatically chasmatic.
The US has a "moral obligation", says sensible Liberal Democrat Menzies Campbell, to take the Iraqi offer seriously and explore it fully. Will it do so? The initially scornful and dismissive response can be expected to harden in the days ahead into a firm line insisting the threat has not diminished one whit, that Iraq will be judged by actions, not words, and that merely "tactical" maneuvers of this sort have been seen before.
Far from welcoming Iraq's prima facie compliance with weapons inspections resolutions, the coming US emphasis will be on the several other "materially breached" UN decrees. And whatever Moscow says, the dogged pursuit of a new resolution authorizing a yet tougher line will continue apace.
Far from facilitating the inspections process, quickly agreeing a timetable and fixing an end point, as Iraq has previously asked, the stress now will be on anywhere, anytime coercion, intrusion, paramilitary enforcement, and re-extraction of inspectors at the first glimmer of obstruction. The public message will be skepticism, that anything worth finding has already been hidden, that "cheat and retreat" is Iraq's game, and that the military option may still be the only option.
To this end, despite yesterday's developments, the military build-up will continue, the ships and tanks, planes and carriers so vital to America's sense of self-worth will edge towards Iraq, the tone-deaf Rumsfeld's Pentagon will bang on at what Syria calls the drums of war and deathly ominous B52s, like so many unChristian soldiers marching as to war, will once more silence the hedgerows of Gloucestershire. Expect US pretexts for escalation, fake and insincere negotiations, and false horizons.
For Saddam, with every concession, the bar will be raised ever higher. Almost whatever he says or does, the gun will remain at his head, the trigger ever cocked for the commencement of a battle which Bush et al will not be denied. Despite a broad international consensus against it, regime change and nothing less will remain the ultimate objective.
And why, the "man in the street" might ask, do they appear so set on violence? Because Bush's misconceived, over-hyped global "war on terror" has run out of targets and is far from won. Because Iraq is oil-rich (the second biggest reserves) and the Saudis grow unreliable. Because, purely in domestic policy terms, especially post-Enron, this government is political roadkill. Because the administration's predominant, evangelical clique believes it is solo superpower America's historic mission (Bush says it is a "calling") to spread its universal values and rescue a muddled world from itself. Because the Bush family has old scores to settle and new elections to win. Because Bush lacks the insight and imagination to act differently. Because in their September 11 pain and unforgotten anger, not nearly enough of America's "men in the street", and in high places too, are prepared to say stop, pause, and consider what it is they do.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002