Several leading conservatives are voicing concerns that the U.N. Security Council resolution reauthorizing weapons inspections of Iraq will undermine the Bush administration's goal of ousting President Saddam Hussein.
Last week's unanimous vote by the Security Council rewarded weeks of arm-twisting by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and was seen as a major victory for the administration. Yet those most hawkish toward Iraq -- many of them people whose views are influential among administration policymakers -- worry that the inspections roadmap in the U.N. resolution could lead to delays and diminished prospects for military action.
"There is no point in kidding ourselves: The inspections process on which we are to embark is a trap," William Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote in the Weekly Standard.
Richard Perle, the head of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory group, said in an interview yesterday: "I'm very skeptical about our ability to find things if Saddam is not cooperating. Inspections are not very effective in a hide-and-seek situation; there are too few inspectors and too many hiding places."
Kenneth Adelman, a former Reagan administration arms official who is close to various senior Bush aides, concurred. "The whole inspections regime is pretty vacuous," he said in an interview. "When you look at 80 inspectors going into Iraq, that's the size of the police force of Blacksburg, Virginia."
The conservatives are not despairing. Most believe President Bush, who has emphatically committed himself to replacing Hussein, will find a way to do so.
"The longer this drags on, the harder it is for Bush to make the decision to take military action," Kagan said. "But Bush himself is the key factor here. He can order an attack any time he wants to."
There are potential pitfalls for the administration as the inspections proceed. How Hussein will catalogue his weapons, how aggressive the inspectors will be and how the United Nations will respond to Iraqi violations are all unknowable. And, by providing a time line for Hussein, the resolution increases his ability to game the process, according to critics of the resolution.
"It is not a good thing that it makes everything fairly predictable," said Eliot Cohen, a scholar at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, who serves with Perle on the Defense Policy Board. "The Iraqis are very good at playing games."
Still, Cohen added, "I'm not sure it's the best outcome, but it's not a bad outcome from our point of view. . . . The fact that you could get a 15-0 resolution [from the Security Council] is staggering and has a deterrent effect. It's a manifestation of the strength of the United States."
Now that Hussein has met his first requirement of accepting the return of inspectors, the next test will be what weapons and facilities he admits to having on Dec. 8. Some conservatives are hoping the administration will be able to prove, with intelligence evidence, that Hussein's list leaves out key weapons facilities -- thus putting him in violation of the resolution and opening a route to war.
"If we can prove their list of weapons facilities is palpably untrue, that's a good outcome," Adelman said. "I am pessimistic if the inspectors get into Iraq. Once they're in, I think it's nearly impossible for them to find anything."
More likely, conservatives say, is that Hussein will provide a catalogue that is not correct but not demonstrably false. Then the matter could be delayed until mid-February as the inspectors establish themselves in Iraq, do their inspections and prepare a report.
The hope for the hawks during that time would be for the chief inspector, Hans Blix, to take Iraqi scientists and their families out of the country for interviews -- but the conservatives doubt he will do so.
"What has troubled me about Blix is his apparent reluctance to use that authority," Perle said.
The next hurdle for the administration would be how the United Nations would respond to Iraqi violations.
The resolution requires that any violation "be reported to the council for assessment." The Security Council is required to take up the matter promptly, but the hawks have little hope that its members -- particularly veto-wielding France and Russia -- will authorize war if they have any alternative.
"We should hardly be surprised," Kagan and Kristol wrote in the Standard, "that a process established by the U.N. Security Council makes it harder, not easier, for the president to accomplish what he has long stated as his objective in Iraq. President Bush's own policy advisers have led him into an inspections quagmire from which he may have difficulty escaping."