HANS BLIX, the chief weapons inspector for the United Nations, said Monday that Iraq has yet to accept the demand that it show it has eliminated its weapons of mass destruction. To the White House, this was an occasion to begin unsheathing the swords. Even the relatively cautious secretary of state, Colin Powell, said, ''Iraq's time for choosing peaceful disarmament is coming to an end.''
You can bet that one White House official savoring Blix's report was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the man who has spent the most time trashing the inspections in the first place. Back in April, seven months before weapons inspections resumed after a four-year hiatus, Rumsfeld said, ''I just can't quite picture how intrusive something would have to be that it could offset the ease with which they have previously been able to deny and deceive and which today one would think they would be vastly more skillful, having had all this time without inspectors there.''
In 1998, Rumsfeld signed an open letter to President Clinton written by hawks who declared back then that ''even if full inspections were eventually to resume, which now seems highly unlikely, experience has shown that it is difficult if not impossible to monitor Iraq's chemical and biological weapons production.... The only acceptable strategy is one that eliminates the possibility that Iraq will be able to use or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction. In the near term, this means a willingness to undertake military action as diplomacy is clearly failing. In the long term, it means removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power. That now needs to become the aim of American foreign policy.''
The aim of Rumsfeld, now that he has a huge say in American foreign policy, is to talk so much about how bad Iraq is that diplomacy ceases to be an option and, sure, to let the weapons inspectors go in only to make the UN feel good before the bombs fly. On Dec. 3, shortly after the inspections resumed, he moaned, ''You can't expect people to go into a country that is just enormous, with all that real estate and all that underground facilities and all of these people monitoring everything - everything anyone is doing - and expect them to engage in a discovery process and turn up something somebody is determined for them not to turn up.''
Earlier this month, Rumsfeld moaned more loudly, ''You could spend years and years roaming around a country that size trying to find underground tunnels'' and see where he's located weapons. ''One has to almost think that anything that's found - quote `discovered' - has to be something Saddam Hussein was not uncomfortable having be found. I mean, how else would it be found? The country's enormous.''
To some people, the size of Iraq means that the weapons inspectors need more time. Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the team inspecting Iraq specifically for a nuclear weapons program, said his team needed a few more months to provide ''credible assurance'' that Iraq has no program. ''These few months would be a valuable investment in peace because they could help us avoid a war,'' ElBaradei said.
But because of Rumsfeld, no one at the White House, not even Powell, is talking about a few more months. Rumsfeld has even taken to trashing France and Germany, which oppose military action, at least for now. Rumsfeld recently called them the ''old Europe.''
Rumsfeld's mouth has begun to push some surprising people over the edge. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of US forces in the 1991 Gulf War, told The Washington Post this week that he is ''somewhat nervous'' about Rumsfeld's pronouncements, since the Bush administration still does not have evidence of an imminent threat by Hussein. Schwarzkopf said the weapons inspectors need more time.
Schwarzkopf, speaking about Rumsfeld, said, ''When he makes his comments, it appears that he disregards the Army. He gives the perception when he's on TV that he is the guy driving the train and everybody else better fall in line behind him - or else.'' The general said he was concerned that Rumsfeld and other hawks who have never bloodied their hands in combat are dangerously glossing over the reality of prolonged, deadly involvement in Iraq. Saying that he is worried that the wisdom of career military planners at the Pentagon is being ''ignored,'' Schwarzkopf said, ''It's scary, OK?''
If Schwarzkopf is scared, Americans might want to think again when Rumsfeld opens his mouth. If Iraq is so big that weapons inspectors cannot find anything yet, it begs the question of how big an army, how much time, and how many lives are needed to do the job in an invasion. A secretary of defense who never wanted to give inspections enough time to avert war is not likely to be one adding up the cost of the battle.
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