THE PURPOSE of the U.N. Security Council's latest resolution on Iraq is not to dispatch international inspectors on a prolonged hunt for the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein has produced and hidden in defiance of international law. Rather, it is to offer Iraq a "final opportunity" to voluntarily and fully comply with previous disarmament orders. The distinction is crucial: It defines the difference between the United Nations' failed effort during the 1990s to use civilian technicians to force compliance on an unwilling regime and a transformative decision by Iraq to give up its weapons and rogue-state status. Only the latter scenario is an acceptable alternative to a U.S.-led military campaign to disarm Iraq. That's why, at American insistence, the resolution says that "failure by Iraq at any time to comply with and cooperate fully in the implementation of this resolution shall constitute a further material breach" justifying force.
By that standard, it already ought to be pretty clear that Saddam Hussein does not intend to embrace the peaceful solution he has been offered. The statement his government submitted to the Security Council on Wednesday grudgingly conceded that inspectors would be allowed back into the country. But this nominal concession was accompanied by an outpouring of belligerent rhetoric, topped by a blatant lie: that "Iraq neither had produced nor was in possession of any weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical or biological, throughout the time of the inspectors' absence from Iraq." This assertion, contradicted by extensive evidence collected by Western intelligence agencies and the United Nations itself, sends the message that Saddam Hussein intends to return to the same tactical game of obstruction and deception he practiced in the past -- a game that President Bush has said will not be tolerated again.
The signals from Baghdad should be giving U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and chief weapons inspector Hans Blix serious reason to doubt whether the inspectors' mission can go forward. Yet both Mr. Annan and Mr. Blix appear ready to lapse back into the old routine of misusing the inspectors. After visiting the White House last week, Mr. Annan waved off the Iraqi stonewalling: "We need to be patient and give the inspectors time and space to do their work," he advised. "We should not be seen as rushing the process and impatiently moving on to the next phase." In saying this, Mr. Annan himself was trying to skip over what should be the first, and possibly the only, stage of this process: determining whether Iraq is prepared to fully comply. If so, the inspectors would then need time to verify Baghdad's full disclosure of its arsenal and subsequent disarmament. But Baghdad's communication to the council, with its blatant denial of its weapons, fails the threshold test of intentions.
So far the White House's reaction to the Iraqi declarations has been muted; officials say they prefer to wait for the full declaration of arms, precursor materials and related industry required of Iraq by Dec. 8. Possibly between now and then Saddam Hussein will make the judgment that full disclosure and cooperation is his only means of survival -- though statements like Mr. Annan's make that outcome less likely. Most probably Iraq will deliver another false statement to the council, while maneuvering to block the inspectors from uncovering its lies. If so, the administration must be prepared to respond aggressively: It must demand that the council, and U.S. allies, judge whether Saddam Hussein's words and actions meet the test of cooperation stipulated by the resolution. Months of inspections should not be needed to clarify whether Iraq's dictator intends to reverse the course he has pursued for the past two decades, and thus avert war.