Asked this week whether the Bush administration's goal in Iraq is getting rid of weapons of mass destruction, getting rid of Saddam Hussein, or both, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld replied: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It depends on who you talk to and when you talk to them."
Rumsfeld's seeming non-answer amounted to a fair statement of Iraq policy during a week when senior administration officials from the president on down appeared to have widely divergent views about the status of nascent weapons inspections in Iraq and what will happen if, as expected, Baghdad insists in a declaration it is due to file with the United Nations by Sunday that it has no chemical, biological or nuclear arms, or long-range missile systems.
Officials said that part of this week's saber rattling -- including Vice President Cheney's warning on Monday that "deception will not be tolerated" in the Iraqi declaration, and "delay and defiance will invite the severest consequences" -- is designed to keep pressure on the Baghdad government, particularly as television cameras record smiling Iraqi officials graciously opening all doors to inspectors, and to maintain domestic and international focus on Hussein's manifest sins. But in an apparent resurgence of policy fissures within the administration, the tough rhetoric has been juxtaposed with expressions of patience, such as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's observation on Tuesday that inspections were "off to a good start."
As they have in the past, most recently when President Bush wrestled with whether to submit the Iraq issue to the United Nations in the first place, followed by an internal debate over how much to compromise on the terms of a U.N. Security Council resolution, those fissures can be expected to surface as officials compete to influence Bush's view whenever a decision deadline approaches.
The Iraqi declaration due Sunday has set up the latest test of rhetoric between the administration's hard line -- centered in the offices of Cheney and Rumsfeld -- and its softer, more diplomatic side represented by Powell, with support from most other members of the Security Council and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Annan said Monday that he thought Iraqi cooperation with inspectors "seems to be good."
On the surface, the U.N. resolution passed unanimously last month sets up the declaration as a test of whether Iraq intends to comply with its terms, saying that "false statements or omissions" will constitute a "material breach of Iraq's obligations." Material breaches are to be reported immediately to the council for assessment and a decision on whether to implement what the resolution calls "serious consequences" -- meaning military action.
Iraq has already made clear the gist of what the document will say. In an interview taped yesterday for broadcast last night on ABC's "Nightline," Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz repeated his government's assertion that "the fact is, we don't have weapons of mass destruction. We don't have chemical, biological or nuclear weaponry."
The Bush administration has made its own views equally clear. "The United States knows that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction," Rumsfeld said this week. "Any country on the face of the earth with an active intelligence program knows that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction." Even Powell, whose "good start" observation, made to journalists traveling with him to Colombia, caused some consternation in Washington, took a step, albeit an equivocal one, toward the hard line yesterday. "We are sure they have in their possession weapons of mass destruction," he said. "And if they do have them, they better acknowledge it. . . . Either they cooperate or we will have to disarm them forcibly."
But several administration officials acknowledged yesterday that the declaration itself is unlikely to provide a convenient hair-trigger for war. Expected to total at least 1,000 pages, two copies of the document will be handed over Saturday night in Baghdad. Inspection officials will hand-carry one to their offices in Vienna and the other to the United Nations in New York. On Monday morning, the New York copy will be formally handed to the Security Council, which will then presumably distribute copies to the 15 council members, including the United States.
Sources said the administration has lined up a team of government experts, including scientists at U.S. weapons laboratories, to examine the document, a process expected to take as long as a week, before any firm determinations can be made.
At the same time, the compromises that Bush ultimately made in the resolution impose their own restraints on early military action. False Iraqi statements "and failure by Iraq at any time" to cooperate with inspectors, are to be "reported to the council for assessment," it says, "in accordance with" other resolution provisions. The other provisions say that "material breaches" are to be reported to the council by chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, and that the council will then hold a meeting to "consider the situation."
A French official, whose government was in the forefront of efforts to tone down the U.S. draft resolution, said yesterday that while Paris considers the declaration "a signal" of Iraqi intentions, "if you're talking about material breach, it's a little more complicated than that." France views the resolution as "a whole," the official said, and any assertions in the declaration must be tested by inspectors on the ground.
If the United States has intelligence evidence that conclusively disproves Iraqi assertions, the French official said, "we have not seen it." "It doesn't mean there isn't anything . . . but if there is evidence, it should be made known." On the ground in Iraq yesterday, a senior U.N. official complained that the United States has not provided inspectors with promised intelligence.
But the unlikelihood that the Iraqi declaration will provide a trigger for war did not stop officials, from Bush on down, from indicating this week that it might. On Monday, the president caused ripples of both encouragement and concern when he said that signs of Iraqi cooperation with the inspectors were "not encouraging" so far. If Iraq did not provide a truthful declaration by Dec. 8, Bush said, "the Iraqi dictator will have demonstrated to the world once again that he has chosen not to change his behavior."
By yesterday, however, Bush appeared, at least temporarily, to be leaning in the Powell-Annan direction. "We've been doing this for five days," he said of the inspections. "The process is just beginning." While he remained fully prepared to take action if Hussein did not disarm, Bush said that "time will tell whether or not he is willing to do so."