The return of U.N. arms inspectors to Iraq would do more harm than good. Although politicians and pundits alike call for renewed inspections, the inspectors' return not only would not remove Iraq's remaining weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities, but -- more ominously -- might actually help develop Iraq's WMD programs over the long term and make a mockery of arms control in general. Surprising as it sounds, an impasse over inspections is actually the best realistic outcome for the United States. A continued standoff will better position the United States to hamper Saddam Hussein's quest for WMD -- and avoid being party to the deliberate flouting of U.N. resolutions and arms control agreements.

The champions of inspections make three assumptions: that the return of inspectors will lead to the end of Iraq's nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs; that some inspections are better than no inspections; and that an impasse over inspections is unsustainable. All three assumptions are false.

A new round of inspections would probably not unearth much of Saddam's remaining WMD programs. Unless the international community is willing to significantly ratchet up the pressure on Iraq through tighter sanctions and military strikes, Iraq is not likely to be any more compliant with a new inspection mission. Unfortunately, current international sentiment seeks to ease pressure rather than increase it. Thus inspectors would not have access to sensitive sites in Iraq, and Iraqi officials would resume their deception campaign. Inspectors would probably discover only what Saddam wanted them to, or at best marginally improve the West's knowledge of Iraq's WMD programs, leaving Iraq's existing WMD capabilities untouched.

If Baghdad defied the inspectors, Washington would soon find itself in a nasty dilemma comparable to what it faced in December 1998 when it launched the Desert Fox bombing campaign: either ignore Iraq's noncompliance and deception and pave the way for declaring Iraq free of WMD, or use force to demand access. Past shows of force, however, have brought at best limited progress on inspections. Moreover, in contrast to the current on-and-off bombing of Iraq, Baghdad rather than Washington would control the timing of any confrontation.

A more fundamental concern, however, is that inspectors might certify that Iraq has ended its quest for WMD. If Iraq is allowed to control the location of the inspections, it could eventually get a passing grade on its WMD programs. This is particularly likely if the United States and its allies are unwilling to back up the inspectors with force, which would let Iraq return to its old tricks of deceiving them or denying them access. Such a certification would lead to the end of the sanctions regime slapped on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990, which is justified today by Iraq's continued WMD programs. The end of sanctions would, in turn, give Saddam control over Iraqi spending and free him to purchase WMD-related materials from abroad. The nominal success of inspections today would give Saddam a free hand to develop WMD programs tomorrow.

The discrediting of inspections in Iraq could seriously harm future arms control efforts in other parts of the world. Even Iraq's most vocal supporters know that it retains some WMD capacity and almost certainly will pursue WMD in the future. As Richard Butler, the former executive chair of the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) charged with ending Iraq's WMD programs, noted, "Saddam Hussein has broken all of Iraq's nonproliferation undertakings. . . . These facts are known in the Security Council, including by those permanent members who have given Saddam strong support." Giving Baghdad a passing grade thus makes a mockery of other arms control regimes, encouraging countries to defy and cheat international agreements.

Ironically, then, an impasse over inspections is actually the best outcome for the United States. As long as Saddam does not let inspectors into the country -- and he has rejected even the suggestion of compromise here -- the United States can plausibly argue that Iraq retains its WMD programs. Saddam, not the United States, appears the villain. Washington can keep sanctions relatively robust and gain support for its campaign to isolate and punish Baghdad. If inspectors return and certify Iraqi "compliance," however, the end of sanctions and Iraq's pariah status cannot be far behind.


In April 1991, in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 687, which made the destruction of Iraq's WMD programs a condition for ending sanctions. Iraq was to declare its illegal weapons immediately and destroy them within one year. Unscom was created to catalog Iraq's nuclear, chemical, and biological arms and supervise their destruction. No one expected serious problems. Western leaders assumed that the battered, defeated Saddam would cooperate and that Iraq's limited WMD arsenal would be destroyed.

In reality, UNSCOM's task proved enormously difficult. Saddam refused to take UNSCOM seriously and neither declared the contents of his WMD arsenal nor cooperated in its destruction. "The Special Commission is a temporary measure," he reportedly told his advisers. "We will fool them, and we will bribe them, and the matter will be over in a few months." From the start, Saddam blocked the inspectors' access, lied to them about the extent or even existence of his WMD programs, and otherwise made a mockery of the process.

Iraq's arsenal also proved far more extensive than Western leaders initially suspected. Before 1990, the world knew little of Iraq's WMD efforts beyond the fact that it had a tried and tested chemical weapons program -- used with gruesome effectiveness against Iraq's own Kurdish population and against Iran during their eight-year war. Moreover, the United States and its allies mistakenly believed that Operation Desert Storm had destroyed much of Iraq's WMD capability. As Defense Secretary Richard Cheney testified in the immediate aftermath of Desert Storm, "Saddam Hussein is out of the nuclear business." Information discovered following the Gulf War, however, indicated that Iraq was close to producing a nuclear weapon and had vast stores of chemical weapons. A key Iraqi official defected in 1995 and revealed that Saddam also had a vast biological weapons program. Thus UNSCOM's tasks proved far more onerous than its creators had imagined.

Despite these formidable challenges, UNSCOM made real progress identifying and destroying part of Iraq's WMD and missile arsenal. Along with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), UNSCOM has overseen the destruction of dozens of Iraqi long-range missiles and missile warheads, tens of thousands of tons of chemical munitions, 690 tons of chemical weapons agent, a biological weapons plant, and nuclear weapons production facilities. Equally important, when the inspectors had relatively free access throughout Iraq, their presence and vigilance made it harder for Iraq to continue work on its WMD programs. By any imagining, these accomplishments were a serious setback for Saddam's regime.

But UNSCOM's progress never led to the ultimate success: a complete accounting of Iraq's programs and the destruction of all WMD materials. Baghdad revealed almost none of its programs willingly and often lied about destroying parts of its arsenal. Iraq almost certainly still has a small stockpile of chemical weapons and limited quantities of biological agents and seed stock.

As the inspections dragged on, Saddam provoked a series of crises and successfully wrung concessions from the Security Council that greatly hindered the inspections' effectiveness. Iraq first declared various "sensitive" sites off-limits and then expanded these restricted areas to include "presidential" sites. In June 1996, UNSCOM Chair Rolf Ekeus agreed that his teams would avoid "sensitive" sites such as the headquarters of Saddam's dictatorial Baath Party. In 1997, Iraq declared several sites "presidential" turf and thus off-limits to inspectors, even though these sites included more than 1,000 buildings and storage sites. In a fuzzily worded memorandum of understanding between U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz signed on February 23, 1998, the United Nations agreed to respect Iraq's sovereignty, territorial integrity, and legitimate concerns related to its dignity. The memorandum made particular reference to presidential sites. By implication, Annan agreed that the inspectors would limit their activities.

Taken together, the various agreements with Baghdad represented a marked shift for UNSCOM. Despite Iraq's defiance and lies, Saddam's regime was no longer bound to the original interpretation of the U.N. resolutions. Rather, it became a negotiating partner. Annan even declared that Saddam was "a man I can do business with." The Annan-Aziz agreement let Baghdad hide its existing WMD programs and carry out WMD-related research with less fear of UNSCOM meddling. Barring the inspectors from large parts of Iraq made the effective concealment of WMD-related materials far easier, as UNSCOM members knew better than anyone. After Ekeus' successor, Butler, stepped down, Butler blasted Annan's efforts, charging that the secretary-general papered over unsolved problems with airy diplomacy and that Annan wanted UNSCOM ended because it was too independent.

Iraq's refusal to cooperate with UNSCOM and determination to confront the United States and its allies over inspections became increasingly apparent as 1997 drew to a close. Despite near-constant negotiations, Iraq refused inspectors access, sought to remove U.S. personnel from UNSCOM's staff, and otherwise made a mockery of inspections. Several attempts at compromise throughout 1998 failed, including a last-minute agreement in November 1998 under threat of U.S. air strikes. Since several days of bombing in December 1998, a campaign that went by the unfortunate name of Operation Desert Fox, Saddam has not let any inspectors visit Iraq.

In addition to gaining the complicity of officials at the United Nations, Iraq has also gained the tacit -- and at times overt -- support of several major powers. France, Russia, and China all became highly critical of both inspections and sanctions. After UNSCOM issued reports citing Iraqi noncompliance, these powers called for the end of sanctions and criticized UNSCOM, rather than demanding that Iraq respect the Security Council's previous resolutions. In 1997 and much of 1998, the United States eschewed air strikes on Iraq despite its contempt for U.N. disarmament resolutions for fear of losing the international consensus that had heretofore girded its actions.

Iraq implausibly insists that its WMD programs have been terminated and therefore demands that sanctions be lifted. In reality, Iraq's WMD programs probably have continued since Desert Fox, even though information on their progress is extremely scarce. A White House report to Congress notes that "Saddam Hussein has shown no hesitation in developing WMD in the past, and it is prudent to assume that he is still intent on such development."

The UNSCOM experience provides a fundamental lesson about successful arms control. Ferreting out a WMD program requires either the cooperation of the state involved or a willingness by the international community to ensure compliance with the relevant agreements, using force as necessary. To no one's surprise, Saddam's Iraq never cooperated. More alarming, the international community was reluctant to use force to back up the inspectors despite Iraq's repeated flouting of U.N. resolutions. As a result, UNSCOM fell short. Iraq "could have an unknowable number of SCUD-type missiles, with sufficient anthrax and vx to cause immense damage," noted Tim Trevan, a former senior adviser to UNSCOM. "This represents an impressive power projection capability in the hands of a regime that has amply shown the political will to use it. That should be enough to scare anyone into action. It scares me."


Given the ongoing impasse, the Security Council is currently weighing two replacements (along with several variants) for UNSCOM. Neither heir is inspiring. Both would replace the already hobbled UNSCOM with something even feebler. More important, both are short-term expedients that would speed the removal of sanctions rather than defang Saddam.

The first proposal, favored by China and Russia (and initially France), calls for replacing UNSCOM with a long-term monitoring system. This system would be essentially reactive, like past IAEA monitoring. If Baghdad agreed to this proposal, sanctions would be lifted. On balance, the suggestion is a barely veiled declaration of surrender to Iraqi obstinacy.

If China and Russia's goal was disarming Iraq, their proposal would be easy to dismiss. In essence it is modeled on the old IAEA system, which had a poor record of stopping the spread of WMD. Under the IAEA's eyes, Iraq built up a massive nuclear program in the 1980s, and hiding biological and chemical weapons programs is far easier than hiding a nuclear one. Moreover, Iraq for years successfully hid many of its WMD programs from UNSCOM's far more intrusive inspections. An IAEA-like structure would not be able to monitor, let alone halt, Iraq's WMD programs.

The powers favoring this proposal, however, care little about keeping nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons out of Saddam's clutches. They seek Baghdad's goodwill and, eventually, renewed commercial ties. They have already tried to end sanctions, declaring Iraq's paltry disarmament efforts sufficient. Beijing and Moscow (and sometimes Paris) want to reward Iraq for its lack of compliance by lifting sanctions, using protestations of concern about sanctions' humanitarian impact as window-dressing for their commercial motives.


A second, more muscular proposal advanced by the British and the Dutch has won tentative American (and even more tentative French) backing for what was initially labeled a "United Nations Commission on Inspection and Monitoring." Now referred to as "the omnibus resolution," the proposal calls for a more assertive inspections regime, and -- if Iraq complies -- an end to sanctions. Foreign companies would also be allowed to invest in Iraq's oil industry, and the ceiling on Iraqi oil sales would be raised. In essence, this proposal resurrects UNSCOM, albeit in a debilitated form. If Iraq cooperated with the new regime for several months and complied with a disarmament road map, sanctions would be suspended, although they could be reimposed if, as it almost invariably has in the past, Iraq subsequently reneges on its promises.

The British-Dutch proposal to replace UNSCOM initially seems to meet most sensible U.S. concerns, unlike the fig leaf on capitulation offered by China and Russia. A closer look, however, reveals that even this proposal suffers from the same problems found later in UNSCOM's unhappy existence.

The first and most basic hitch is that any renewed inspections regime would be too weak and riddled with loopholes to be effective. The concessions made by Annan restricted inspections tremendously. Unless they are repealed, inspections will be a sham.

Even when the inspections regime was going full-bore, its effectiveness was limited. Finding hidden weapons in a vast area is exceptionally difficult, particularly for biological weapons, which require relatively limited infrastructure and can be easily concealed as legitimate medical or research facilities. The January 1995 defection of Wafiq al-Samarrai, the former chief of Iraqi military intelligence, led to the revelation that Iraq had manufactured and loaded onto delivery systems the lethal chemical agent vx -- a surprise to UNSCOM. Similarly, despite four years of intrusive inspections, the full extent of Iraq's biological weapons program became clear only after the 1995 defection of Hussein Kamel al-Majid, who headed Iraq's WMD programs. Only then did Iraq admit that it had "weaponized" some biological agents. And remember, this successful deception occurred before the Annan concessions. With "sensitive" and "presidential" sites off-limits and with the international community reluctant to force Iraq to cooperate, inspectors will have little success in finding and destroying Iraq's most lethal weapons.

Progress would require cooperation with the world's intelligence agencies. Because of the Baathist regime's deception techniques, only clandestine means can obtain the necessary data for robust inspections -- the location of the programs, the extent of ongoing research, the amount of material truly destroyed, and so on. But given the brouhaha over UNSCOM's reported cooperation with U.S., Israeli, and other intelligence services, cooperation between UNSCOM's successor and various intelligence agencies may be impossible. Even the most basic associations with others' spy services would be used to discredit the inspection process.

The inspectors' limited effectiveness was and is not due to the composition of UNSCOM itself or any of its likely successors. Indeed, its dedicated staffers and two doughty leaders, Ekeus and Butler, withstood tremendous pressure from Iraq and its allies, sticking to their guns and demanding that Iraq be held accountable for its defiance of the Security Council's will and international law. Rather, the problem is with squaring a circle: having some kind of inspections when the government in question flatly will not cooperate and when the international community will not enforce its own rules. Iraq regularly stopped UNSCOM from acquiring sensitive documents simply by blocking inspectors' access and moving the documents out the back door. Iraq's interference was hardly subtle, and its pretexts for noncompliance were often pathetic. But UNSCOM could do little more than issue firmly worded reports of Iraqi noncompliance; the commission (and its possible replacements) had no stick with which to punish Iraq. Except for the United States and Britain, the major powers would not back the commission up. And as long as there is no significant punishment for defiance, Iraq will not budge. Instead, Baghdad will appeal the decisions of UNSCOM or any successor body to the great powers, effectively neutering it.

Second, the long-term outlook would remain bleak even if UNSCOM's successor were more robust. Simply discovering and destroying Iraq's WMD capabilities is not enough to stop Iraq over the long term so long as Iraq can simply rebuild its WMD programs. Given Iraq's impressive engineering and scientific base and its erstwhile (and future) oil wealth, it could quickly rebuild its arsenal if sanctions were lifted as a reward for "cooperating" with inspections.

Fortunately for the United States, Saddam appears even more ignorant of this fact than are the proponents of renewed inspections. Indeed, had Saddam simply complied with UNSCOM in 1991, his WMD programs would probably be stronger today than they were on the eve of Desert Storm. Iraq could have started rebuilding after its 1991 arsenal was destroyed, which would have brought a lifting of sanctions. Ironically, Baghdad's noncompliance worked out better for Washington and its allies than compliance would have; it isolated Saddam and thus prevented him from rebuilding his WMD programs.

True long-term success arises from either a country's inability to manufacture WMD, its lack of desire to do so, or both. Saddam is obviously committed to his WMD programs; he has sacrificed almost a decade of economic development on the altar of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. He sees his terrifying arsenal as one of the key props of his power. But Iraq's WMD programs, particularly in the area of chemical weapons, will not go away even when Saddam does. Saddam's replacement will most likely come from the ranks of the army or the Baath Party, and any such successor will probably want WMD, too. Most Iraqi leaders saw chemical weapons as instrumental in defeating Iran. Moreover, given Iraq's dangerous neighborhood, a strong deterrent will be a top priority for almost any regime.

Halting Iraq's ability to manufacture WMD is a more promising approach, but it requires constant vigilance. Again, simply destroying Iraq's current stocks is no guarantee of success since Iraq retains the human capital to rebuild its programs quickly. Although assessments vary, Iraq probably would need only a few years to build a nuclear weapon after sanctions were lifted. Iraq's biological weapons programs could be resumed in a matter of days. Producing chemical agents such as mustard gas and sarin would take only a few months.

So both sanctions and strict controls over Iraqi imports are necessary to stop proliferation. Sanctions have cut Iraqi state revenues by $10 billion to $15 billion a year, slashing the regime's assets. Equally important, sanctions have sharply restricted what Iraq can buy. If Iraq cannot acquire "dual-use" items -- items that can be used for both its WMD programs and legitimate civilian purposes -- developing WMD programs will be far harder. A Baathist Iraq that can trade as a "normal" nation is an unnerving prospect.

Third, renewing inspections lets Iraq pick the timing of the inevitable future confrontations. In the final years of UNSCOM, Saddam chose his provocations according to his own lights, disrupting inspections or otherwise egregiously violating agreements when he felt international support for his cause was strong or when domestic concerns led him to pick a fight abroad. Given the declining support for containment among Washington's regional allies and the major powers, ceding Baghdad the initiative could mean disaster. If Saddam waits for a particularly sensitive moment -- say, a setback in the Arab-Israeli peace process, or a burst of internal discontent in Saudi Arabia -- to defy the inspectors, the necessary basing, access, and diplomatic support for U.S.-led strikes to ensure compliance may not be forthcoming.

Finally, if the British-Dutch proposal or one similar to it is adopted, it would complicate U.S. efforts to use force against Iraq in other ways. Iraqi violations would put the United States in an unenviable position. Ignoring Iraq's truculence will discredit the United States, but military strikes in response to Iraqi noncompliance would probably receive little support. Only massive campaigns comparable to Desert Fox will make the Iraqis blink, and even America's allies offer little support for such a campaign -- particularly if Saddam links his defiance to the sanctions, which most of America's key Arab allies dislike. The better Saddam times his provocation, the more likely the world is to go wobbly. On balance, then, adopting a proposal similar to the British-Dutch initiative -- although not as bad as the risible suggestion by China and Russia -- is asking for trouble.


Prolonging an impasse over inspections is better than the superficially attractive but deeply counterproductive resumption of enfeebled inspections. To be sure, an ideal policy for the United States would involve the return of inspectors. It would combine three elements: lasting sanctions on WMD-related items, intrusive inspections and monitoring comparable to those in UNSCOM's early days, and an international and regional consensus to use force should Iraq violate any agreements. Such an ideal, however, is flatly unattainable. Inspections achieved their earlier successes only because of strong support from the international community. Today, however, Russia is an aggressive advocate of Iraq's cause and a full-throated critic of inspections and sanctions. France and China also oppose all three items of the ideal U.S. policy, and -- except for a handful of traumatized Gulf emirates, especially Kuwait -- the Arab states often hesitate to support U.S. strikes on Iraq. Not surprisingly, then, all the various inspection regimes on the table are not intrusive.

A watered-down version of inspections, however, is not acceptable. In this case, no loaf is better than half a loaf. If inspectors return to Iraq, Washington will soon find itself in a jam. Saddam may again refuse to cooperate, leaving the United States almost alone in seeking military strikes. Even more dangerous, however, is the possibility that Saddam will cooperate. This would spell not only the end of inspections but also the end of sanctions. Iraq would then be free to reconstitute its WMD programs -- a clear and present danger to the entire Middle East.

Those who believe most strongly in the value of arms control should be those most outraged by the prospect of enfeebled inspectors heading to Iraq. If the United States and the other major powers close their eyes and declare Iraq to be in compliance, they discredit the very premises of arms control: that states are bound to their international agreements and that the international community has a duty to enforce these obligations. Other states will learn from Baghdad's example, cheating or ignoring their commitments if they feel that they will pay no price.

Iraq's successful defiance would encourage proliferation in other troubled regions. If international frameworks, U.N. resolutions, and solemn statements by the leaders of major powers mean little in Iraq, states in other dangerous regions will be more likely to seek nuclear weapons, anthrax, and sarin gas. Iraq's experience would demonstrate that the international community will let even the most brutal and bellicose leaders acquire WMD, thereby encouraging their unhappy neighbors to seek WMD deterrents of their own.

Better that the United States embrace an impasse than support half-baked efforts to resolve it. True, a standoff deprives the United States and the world of both a means to further curtail Iraq's existing programs and an on-the-ground monitoring force, but an impasse does quite effectively stop Iraq's future WMD development. The United States can compellingly argue that Iraq is not complying with its U.N.-sanctioned nonproliferation obligations and thus justify the continuation of sanctions. And Iraq, not the United States, clearly remains the recalcitrant party.

As a diplomatic tactic, the United States should press for its ideal policy while blocking compromise solutions. Diplomatically, it would be difficult and, indeed, foolish for Washington to openly oppose renewed inspections. But U.S. policymakers should recognize that compromises, which offer the false promise of progress, will in fact lay the groundwork for Iraq to free itself of sanctions and rebuild its WMD programs. As long as the inspection program remains hobbled, political capital should be spent on shoring up sanctions and winning support for sustained, extensive air strikes on Iraq rather than returning inspectors whose hands would be tied.

At first blush, such an approach appears duplicitous, but it is actually far less disingenuous than support for or cooperation with enfeebled inspections. Washington would simply demand that if inspections occur, they be effective. If this is impossible -- and today, it is -- a continued impasse is a more honest policy than a flawed compromise.

The greatest difficulty is in shoring up sanctions, which are necessary to block Saddam's WMD programs. Sanctions fatigue is acute. Critics in the region -- and, increasingly, at home -- regularly denounce the humanitarian cost of sanctions. To counter, sanctions' defenders need to more vigorously and more frequently point out the obvious: Saddam has spent what limited money he controls on arms and lavish rewards for his followers, not on the well-being of the Iraqi people; money earmarked for humanitarian purposes often goes unspent; the regime smuggles humanitarian goods out of Iraq to sell on the black market; and Iraqis living in the parts of northern Iraq under U.N. control fare far better than those under the Baathist thumb. If sanctions were removed, there is little reason to expect that Saddam would spend the new revenue on the Iraqi people and every reason to believe that he would blow it on Iraq's WMD programs.

To counter legitimate humanitarian concerns about the harm done by halting the transfer of some dual-use items -- such as chlorine, which can be used for both chemical weapons and water purification -- Washington should push for more direct international control over Iraqi imports. If the international community can confidently purchase, transfer, and install water-treatment facilities or other humanitarian necessities without worrying that Iraq will divert them for military uses, it could send the requisite dual-use items. Such transfers, however, require that control remain in international hands lest Saddam's goons swipe the technology. Iraq, not the United States, is the main barrier to such a shift today.

In a wider sense, however, the stumbling blocks in this diplomatic dance lie not with Iraq but with U.S. allies and other major powers. America's greatest obstacle is the efforts by France, Russia, and other defenders of the Baath to readmit Iraq into the community of nations without requiring it to adhere to international norms. Unfortunately, standing alone may be self-defeating, despite its moral attractiveness. If Washington uses its Security Council veto to keep sanctions strong despite an international consensus that they must go, China, France, Russia, and many Middle Eastern states will trade openly with Iraq, making sanctions a joke.

Striking the proper balance will be difficult. For sanctions to succeed, all the major powers will have to cooperate, particularly those that have advanced engineering products, chemical and pharmaceutical industries, and other sources of WMD-related materials. But Beijing, Paris, and Moscow all want the sanctions gutted. To counter, Washington must use its leverage in other foreign policy areas. Here, Saddam is Washington's greatest ally: his continued defiance, heavy-handed blustering, and refusal to consider even the most favorable compromises make isolating his thuggish regime far easier.

Clearly, an impasse is not a lasting solution to the problem of Iraqi doomsday weapons. But the perfect should not become the enemy of the good. Renewed inspections would, however unwittingly, help Saddam develop his nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs. Opposing inspections may require Washington to stake out some unpopular diplomatic positions, but given the stakes involved, the danger of offending Saddam's defenders is easily worth the risk.

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