The past week has seen an unprecedented diplomatic offensive on the part of Iraq. This appears to be driven by the harsh rhetoric emanating from the Bush administration since the president's identification of Iraq as an integral part of an "axis of evil."
Whether or not Iraq is sincere, Baghdad's burst of diplomacy appears to be designed to derail a drive for war from within the Bush administration that has been gaining momentum at a startling rate.
Iraq has dispatched representatives to Europe, Russia, China and the Arab world to distance itself from President Bush's characterization of it as evil and to discourage the war-like undertones of such a label. These efforts have borne instant fruit. The "axis of evil" formulation has been criticized in almost every corner of the world as ill-conceived and counterproductive.
There was, however, one issue that caused trouble for Iraq: the return of United Nations weapons inspectors. The focus by Bush on the matter of weapons inspections prior to his State of the Union address resonated in many capitals around the globe, even those sympathetic to Iraq or overtly opposed to renewed military conflict.
The ambiguities that exist concerning Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs are troubling. The shadow cast by Sept. 11, combined with the specter of weapons of mass destruction, made the issue of the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq suddenly relevant.
Russia, China and Turkey all have urged Baghdad to allow the inspectors back to work. Iraq was cool to these overtures until, in a stunning recent reversal, Baghdad communicated to the U.N. secretary general its willingness to engage in discussions on the matter.
In so doing, Iraq has exposed the Achilles' heel of Washington's policy: Is the U.S. truly serious about weapons inspections?
While Iraq has stated that it has set no preconditions for any discussions regarding inspectors, it is widely recognized in the United Nations that the issue of economic sanctions is firmly linked to weapons inspections. Any discussion of sanctions is the last thing the Bush administration would want.
Economic sanctions have been the cornerstone of a policy of containment pursued by three consecutive administrations. Sanctions are essential to Bush's plan to destabilize and eventually overthrow Saddam Hussein.
The resumption of serious weapons inspections would, by their very nature, open the door for the eventual lifting of the sanctions, which in turn would signal an end of containment. This could mean the de facto recognition that Hussein would retain power. Such a process certainly flies in the face of the strong language of confrontation coming from such proponents of the Hussein regime's removal as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Sens. Joe Lieberman, John McCain and Joe Biden.
The Iraqi diplomatic offensive has thrown the administration into a quandary.
Although the Iraqi offer was given short shrift by Secretary of State Colin Powell, the machinery of international diplomacy has been actively engaged and will prove hard to stop. By showing a willingness to discuss the issue of inspectors, Iraq has trumped those who have maintained that Hussein would never permit their return. Baghdad now has raised the question as to whether U.S. support for inspectors has been merely rhetorical, a verbal foil designed to support the primary policy objective of removing Hussein from power.
How the Bush administration answers this new challenge will do much to shape the nature of any global support for future actions against Hussein.
Scott Ritter, a former U.N. weapons inspector, is the author of "Endgame: Solving the Iraqi Problem, Once and For All" (Simon & Schuster, 1999).
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times