By Stan Crock When Iraq released its 12,000-page disclosure statement, you could almost hear a sigh of relief from the Bush camp. Strongman Saddam Hussein did just what the President's foreign-policy team thought he would -- he failed to answer lingering questions about his weapons of mass destruction programs. And on Dec. 19, the White House declared that Iraq was in violation of the U.N. resolution requiring it to report all its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. That brings the two countries one step closer to the brink of war.
But as U.N. weapons inspectors comb through suspected arms sites in Iraq looking for evidence of duplicity, the question remains: Is war inevitable? Surprisingly, the evidence to date still supports three quite plausible scenarios -- two of which don't involve a full-scale conflict.
TROUBLING SIGNS. The first is the most obvious. Under this scenario, President Bush, having staked his reputation on a hard line against Saddam, sees no alternative but a military action to oust him. The President has long called for regime change in Iraq. He has said he doesn't believe that its dictator will ever change his defiant approach.
So the Administration could conclude that if a country the size of Iraq doesn't want to disarm, no army of inspectors can make it. Saddam just has too many places to hide things. Baghdad's grousing about inspections and shooting at allied pilots in no-fly zones are also troubling signs.
Some Administration officials also suspect that Saddam's regime has links to al Qaeda. Even if it doesn't, they argue, ending Saddam's brutal control of the country is necessary to make sure he doesn't obtain weapons of mass destruction and use, or threaten to use, them. Some of the President's most powerful aides, including Vice-President Richard Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, hold this view. That path would seem to lead inevitably to war.
NEW GOAL? At the other end of the spectrum is this scenario, which even some Republicans believe is credible: The U.S. decides not to intervene militarily because of political considerations.
As the 2002 congressional election approached, for example, the Administration made sure the U.N. Security Council didn't pass any resolution on Iraq. That would have upset the GOP's conservative base, which mistrusts the U.N. Negotiations between the U.S. and the U.N. over Iraq wouldn't alienate the conservatives as long as a deadlocked vote in the Security Council was possible -- an outcome that could still lead to unilateral U.S. action. As this theory predicted, a deal with the U.N. was struck only after the midterm election.
Making this scenario plausible is the subtle but clear change in the Administration's rhetoric. Disarming Iraq, rather than regime change, is now its oft-stated goal. My test for plausibility: A non-Islamic cab driver who recently took me to the airport. Cab drivers are always good sources for common-sense analysis, and this woman cabbie told me she's worried about sending American soldiers to Iraq to die for what she considers an unclear goal. Such sentiments seem to be growing.
Besides, the uncertainty caused by the prospect of war is clearly holding the economy back. Instead of unleashing the dogs of war, why not let inspectors trek around Iraq all winter? Perhaps people will then conclude that fighting really isn't inevitable, businesses will start spending on capital investment again, and the economy will finally rebound. (Combat would have to start before April to avoid Iraq's extreme heat, which crimps fighting in gear that protects soldiers against chemical or biological weapons.)
LOSE FOR WINNING. Another factor to consider: Bush's hiring of a new economic team shows that he's focusing more on the economy. The President remembers that his father won the military battle a decade ago but lost the electoral war because of his inattention to the economy. This President -- and especially his political adviser Karl Rove -- doesn't want to repeat that fiasco. "They know the economy is the thing that will win or lose the election two years from now," says Geoff Kemp, a foreign-policy expert at the Nixon Center and a former National Security Council aide in the Reagan Administration.
One executive I spoke to recently who served on an advisory board when Bush was Texas governor rejects this analysis, however. With Bush, he says, "what you see is what you get." The President is not Machiavellian. Fair enough. But what is it we're seeing? Does the President want to change the Iraqi regime or just to disarm it? Are we seeing the Bush who declared he wouldn't go to the Security Council for a resolution on Iraq -- or the President who did in the end?
Time after time, the President has talked like Administration hardliners Cheney and Rumsfeld but acted like Secretary of State Colin Powell. Maybe what you see is what you get, but the trouble is that the nation and world have double-vision all the time with this Administration.
THE NEW CONTAINMENT. The final scenario ends up in roughly the same place -- but for a different reason. It assumes that the weapons inspectors are reasonably successful. Their mandate to go anywhere anytime and their high-tech equipment enable them to degrade whatever weapons program Iraq has. The relentless inspection regime -- perhaps aided by some bombing of critical locations -- becomes such a hindrance for Saddam that his regime is rendered harmless.
A policy of New Containment emerges. An invasion is averted. Perhaps Saddam stays, a de-fanged dictator. This way, Bush makes good on his goal of disarmament without regime change. Or perhaps Saddam decides to flee Iraq. The outcome, of course, depends on the leader not blocking the inspectors in any way or otherwise provoking a conflict.
Here's the wild card: How will the U.S. and the world know that New Containment is really working? After all, Iraq might be able to hide its programs so well they can't be found. The Administration's whole post-September 11 thesis rests on the notion that deterrence has no more effect on rogue regimes like Saddam's than it does on shadowy terrorist groups. Nothing can be ruled out, including something as cataclysmic as Iraq suddenly lashing out with hidden weapons of mass destruction. But it may be a risk the Administration can ultimately live with.
WHO KNOWS? This is what intrigues me about the last scenario: I attend a lunch once a month with some academics, think-tank specialists, an occasional Administration official, and some lobbyists. A couple of months ago we took a vote on whether the U.S. would be involved militarily in Iraq within six months. The vote was a unanimous yes. And the six months aren't up yet.
However, the group invariably has been wrong on such votes all year long -- just as the conventional wisdom often is wrong. Right now, conventional wisdom says war is inevitable. Maybe, just maybe, it's not. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online