The American people, in Congress assembled, have given President Bush the authority to use force to disarm Saddam Hussein. The president has delegated to Colin Powell the authority to negotiate this with the U.N. Security Council. Powell is in the process of negotiating away that authority to France. And France's game is to give that authority to Hans Blix, the bureaucrat weapons inspector whose most salient characteristic is politeness. Blix was director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which, before the Persian Gulf War, gave Hussein the nuclear Good Housekeeping seal, consistently rating as "exemplary" his compliance with IAEA inspections. After the Gulf War, it was discovered that Hussein had not one but several parallel clandestine nuclear weapons programs going on at once.
Powell has now spent seven weeks negotiating the president's position at the United Nations. He has already made numerous concessions to France, watering down a U.S. draft, eliminating an automatic trigger for military action and dropping a clause allowing permanent members of the Security Council to attach their own inspectors to the team.
It is now down to the bottom line. For the American threat to disarm Hussein to retain any credibility, the State Department will have to hang on to three elements of the current U.S. draft resolution:
(a) Citing Hussein as being in "material breach" of the resolutions he signed to end the Gulf War. Material breach is recognized as a casus belli.
(b) Threatening "serious consequences" if Hussein does not comply with the new inspection regime.
(c) Devising a tough inspection regime that not only includes Hussein's presidential "palaces" but also allows the safe and free interrogation of Iraqi scientists who know where the weapons are -- which means taking them out of the country and giving their families asylum if they so request.
The French, who have spent the past decade on the Security Council acting as Hussein's lawyer, at every turn weakening measures to force him to disarm, are now at it again. At first they tried to keep the words "material breach" out of the resolution. This requires gall, because the material breach is undeniable: Everyone acknowledges that Hussein has violated more than a dozen post-Gulf War U.N. resolutions.
Finding it hard to get around this inconvenient fact, the French are proposing to make the phrase meaningless. They are willing to say that Hussein "was" in material breach but that things will get serious, and military action be warranted, only if he ends up in "further" material breach. Which makes all of the previous material breaches immaterial.
Will Powell buy this sophistry that undermines America's right to act on Saddam Hussein's current and past egregious violations? I don't know.
Furthermore, the French want to leave the question of future material breaches to Blix. God help us. Why should the United States forfeit to him -- and his proven track record of failure -- its freedom of action to defend itself against a supreme threat to its national security?
But the French go one better. They want a third check on American freedom of action, a third point at which they can shut down the United States. They insist that even if Blix finds Hussein in material breach, the question must come back to the Security Council, so that the French (and the Russians and the Chinese -- and the Mauritians and the Cameroonians and the Guineans) can judge how material the breach actually is.
Most crucial of all, however, is the attempt to water down U.S. condition (c) on the nature of the inspections. The only way we're going to find these weapons is if Iraqi scientists tell us where they are. Satellites are not going to find stuff that can be hidden in a basement. In the mid-1990s, inspectors missed Hussein's huge stocks of biological weapons until we learned about them from defectors.
Now, if you interrogate the scientists in the presence of an Iraqi government minder, you'll get nothing. They know that if they say anything, they -- and their families -- will be tortured and killed. Unless these scientists are taken to safe locations, we can write off in advance the entire inspection process as a farce.
Blix says there are "practical difficulties" with this approach.
Well, solve them, Hans!
The French want to leave the question of "safe" interrogation to Blix. Not a chance. He'll likely take the path of least resistance, the one with the fewest "practical difficulties" -- questioning scientists in Iraq, hostages of Hussein. And when he does, the United States will be left powerless.
Why we should agree to these conditions is beyond me. Why is Colin Powell even negotiating them? And why does the president, who is pledged to disarming Hussein one way or the other, allow Powell even to discuss a scheme that is guaranteed to leave Saddam Hussein's weapons in place?