On Iraq, are things going, as a British prime minister once warned an American president against, wobbly?
With less than two weeks to go to a Jan. 27 deadline for a report on whether Iraq is complying with the U.N. Security Council resolution that Baghdad fully disclose and dismantle its program of weapons of mass destruction, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, Hans Blix, tells The Post that, as he sees it, the report due that day is just a little old interim sort of thing and will mark "the beginning of the inspection and monitoring process, not the end of it."
In a related, less-than-shocking development, various unnamed senior diplomats on the Security Council spread the word that, as they see it, the council likely will not vote to find Iraq in violation of its resolution and to authorize the use of force to bring Iraq into compliance -- although council members generally agree that Iraq's 12,000-page "declaration" purporting to fully admit all aspects of its weapons program is just a very long lie made all the more tediously obvious and obviously insulting by its verbosity.
The current American president's only stalwart, the current British prime minister, stands with his party against him and with only 13 percent of the British public willing to support U.S. and British action against Iraq absent U.N. approval. Secretary of State Colin Powell takes this moment to declare that "to characterize Prime Minister Blair as a poodle is an absolutely absurd and silly charge."
All in all, fairly grim auguries. But I would still bet, heavily, on the coming months marking, to borrow from Blix, the beginning of the process by which Saddam Hussein loses his job -- and, with a little luck, his life -- not the end of it. George W. Bush and Tony Blair may have to agree to give Blix a little -- a very little -- more time to further demonstrate the futility of an inspection process already demonstrated over a dozen years of failure. But I don't think this will be of any more consequence than were all the now-forgotten fits and starts that preceded the first war against Hussein.
Now, as then, only three people really matter as to the outcome: the Iraqi dictator, the American president and the British prime minister. The first Gulf War occurred because all three were resolute. The dictator, having stolen Kuwait, refused to give it back. The president and the prime minister refused to accept that this crime should be allowed to stand -- because they understood that such a colossal failure to uphold the law would be to make the world hugely more dangerous. The whole thing was deeply personal, a matter of what was bred in the bones of these three. Another dictator might have backed down, and so might have another president and another prime minister.
And here we are, exactly, again. And what is the state of resolve among the three who will decide war or no war? Well, there is no sign that Hussein has suddenly gone soft. He might in the end try to strike a deal to save himself and his family and their loot through abdication and flight, but it will take an army, not a Blix, on his palace doorstep to bring that about.
As for Bush, he said what he had to say six weeks ago: "Any act of delay, deception or defiance will prove that Saddam Hussein has not accepted the path of compliance and has rejected the path of peace." And: "The United States will be making one judgment: Has Saddam Hussein changed his behavior of the last 11 years?" And: "Inspectors do not have the duty or the ability to uncover terrible weapons hidden in a vast country. The responsibility of inspectors is simply to confirm the evidence of voluntary and total disarmament." These are unusually clear words, and there is no reason to think this unusually determined president did not mean them, or has disowned them.
And Blair -- he is no poodle, and no Powell either. In a news conference Monday, pressed after he had already announced his determination -- "polls or no polls" -- that "we must disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction," he said this to a questioner: "Are people seriously saying that when the U.N. has taken a stand on weapons of mass destruction where they have said to Iraq, 'You have to disarm yourself of these weapons' . . . are people really saying that if there is a breach of that U.N. resolution, that no action should follow? If we did that, we would send a message to the outside world that would, in my view, be absolutely disastrous for the security of the world."
It is still the time of jaw-jaw, but the underlying reality points to war-war.