The word from the White House was that they had expected this all along. The
offer from Iraq to re-admit weapons inspectors was "no surprise", according to
the usual, anonymous, administration sources in their early morning response yesterday.
Much of the US media took them at their word: one of the network breakfast
shows decided it was such a mundane development that its headline was about the
death sentence passed on a California child killer.
There followed a period of strange silence, not just from George Bush but from
opposition politicians. In truth, everyone was trying to digest the implications.
The president did appear in the White House rose garden after breakfast, but
only to mark the 215th anniversary of the signing of the US constitution and lecture
the country's schoolchildren on the importance of learning history. As his own
presidency has shown most dramatically, this might include a lesson on expecting
If Mr Bush really had anticipated this, he would have handled things a little
differently. For four and a half days, since his masterful speech last Thursday,
he has dominated the global diplomatic agenda in a manner he has not managed since
this time last year, in the days after the September 11 attacks.
Suddenly, with what Colin Powell dismissively described as just "a one and
a quarter page letter", the picture has changed yet again, in a manner that must
inevitably delay the administration's plan to topple Saddam Hussein - perhaps
only for days if Iraq should suddenly reveal its ifs and buts, but perhaps indefinitely.
In one sense, it is a triumph for the president, since this would never have
happened if he had responded to his critics and adopted a softer line. On the
other hand, it is deeply frustrating.
"I believe they did expect an offer from Saddam over the inspectors, but not
this fast, and not this pure," said Judith Kipper of the Center for Strategic
and International Studies. "There are so many questions now. It has become a very,
very fluid situation."
Pro-war television pundits were indignant. "We've got to get real here. Saddam
is just trying to buy time," said Marc Ginsberg, a former ambassador to Morocco,
on Fox News. MSNBC's armchair general, former Marine commander Bernard Trainor,
said President Saddam was up to "his old tricks" and described the process as
"a kabuki dance".
One White House source, meanwhile, said President Saddam was playing "rope-a-dope
with the world". The early indications were that the build-up of forces in the
region would be unaffected, and might even be hastened.
However, the president's decision to go via the security council, which, until
Monday, seemed like a masterstroke, means it is the UN and not the administration
that must now decide the pace of events. The council was holding a formal meeting
yesterday - but the main business under discussion was the affairs of Burundi.
The Republicans also appeared to have lost control of the domestic agenda, seven
weeks before midterm elections that will resolve the balance of power on Capitol
Hill for the rest of the president's first term. The Democrats at first refrained
from saying anything, and most planned to wait until after the congressional leadership's
regular weekly meeting with the president today.
But Iraq's offer might give them the opportunity to delay the vote authorizing
the use of force until after the elections - which they are desperate to do if
they can get away with it politically. At the very least they might get Iraq out
of the headlines to allow them the chance to talk about the economy, corporate
greed and other more fertile subjects.
"This letter emphasizes why Dick Cheney didn't want to go to the UN," said
Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution. "Now you start to dither and dicker
about how many inspections are enough. That's the road the White House opened
up with Bush's speech, however much they may regret it now.
"It kicks the can down the road until Saddam makes his first misstep. Unless
and until he does, you're not going to get any consensus internationally or domestically
for going to war," Mr Daalder said.
"The administration can talk about reparations for the Kuwaitis, treatment
of Iraqi minorities, prisoners of war, and all the other UN resolutions Saddam
is flouting. But it all falls a little flat. These will not provide a casus belli
in the eyes of the world."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002