A Dec. 8 article on Iraq's weapons declaration incorrectly attributed a quotation that the "best time" for the United States to strike Iraq is "now." It was Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who made the statement, not Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution. (Published 12/10/02)

During his recent trip to Europe to drum up support from the allies, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz was asked by NATO ambassadors what it would take to prove that Iraq has failed to give up its weapons of mass destruction. His reply illustrated the subjective nature of the evidence against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, which depends on the eye of the beholder.

"It's like the judge said about pornography," Wolfowitz told the closed-door audience, according to a participant. "I can't define it, but I will know it when I see it."

As Baghdad complies with the deadline set by the U.N. Security Council and hands over a detailed report on Iraqi weapons programs, few experts in or out of government are expecting to find a smoking gun buried in the mound of documentation.

A far more likely result, they say, is further ambiguity about Hussein's arsenal and widely differing opinions about the need for war with Iraq.

While the Bush administration may need little convincing that Iraq is in material breach of U.N. resolutions demanding its disarmament, a much higher standard of evidence will be required to convince key U.S. allies, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, of the case for war. Even Britain, America's most dependable ally, has signaled differences with Washington over how long the inspection process should be permitted to continue before declaring that Hussein is cheating.

Now that Iraq has completed its report, pressure will mount on the United States to produce solid evidence to bolster its contention that Hussein still has an extensive program to produce nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in violation of the cease-fire that ended the 1991 Persian Gulf War. U.S. officials have refrained from providing such evidence until now on the grounds that it would enable Baghdad to fill in gaps in its "full and final" accounting of its arsenal.

In briefings last week, senior administration officials went out of their way to play down expectations of dramatic new evidence showing that Iraq has been caught red-handed. As one White House official put it, this will not be like the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, when the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, shocked the Security Council with spy-plane photos of Soviet missile emplacements in Cuba.

"The intelligence process is an art, not a science, requiring synthesis of a lot of information from a wide variety of sources," said a top administration expert on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. He added that over the last four decades, Iraq and other countries have invested huge resources in covering up their tracks, including moving key facilities underground, making them difficult to detect by overhead surveillance.

Rather than a smoking gun, U.S. officials say, the rest of the world should expect a pattern of telltale signs that lead to "only one logical conclusion": that Hussein still has weapons of mass destruction and "values these weapons very dearly."

In the absence of dramatic, unambiguous evidence proving that Hussein is lying, European officials say much will depend on the conclusions of the U.N. inspection teams allowed back into Iraq last month after four years.

"We must give the inspections a serious chance," a West European diplomat said. "If the Americans want to bring the sensible majority of Security Council members with them, it will have to be on the basis of the inspectors' analysis."

Giving the inspectors a chance raises problems of timing, however. Many experts believe it will take the inspectors many months, if not years, to come up with convincing evidence of large-scale cheating by Baghdad. This will push the timetable for an invasion of Iraq past February, the optimum period for fighting a war, before desert temperatures begin to rise and chemical protection suits become too hot to tolerate.

This explains why some Washington hawks would like to orchestrate a showdown with Iraq over the next few weeks, rather than get involved in a protracted cat-and-mouse game with Baghdad.

"If you think the result of the inspections process will be ambiguous, then the best time to strike is now," said Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA expert on Iraq now with the Brookings Institution. "You should make a crisis now because you are not going to have any better cause for a crisis in six months. It is a fantasy to think the inspectors will come up with a smoking gun."

The drawback to engineering a crisis with Iraq based on something less than a smoking gun is that it becomes much more difficult -- although not necessarily impossible -- to assemble an international coalition to overthrow Hussein. Officials from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which are home to large U.S. military bases bordering Iraq, have said they will require a second Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force before allowing their countries to be used as the springboard for an invasion.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, alternative bases are available in Kuwait and Qatar, where the U.S. military has just inaugurated a new command and control center duplicating many of the facilities available at the Prince Sultan air base outside Riyadh.

Turkey's cooperation, however, is crucial for access to northern Iraq, given that neither Iran nor Syria is friendly with the United States.

Bush administration officials have put a good deal of effort into wooing the new Turkish government after the election victory of a moderate Islamic party, many of whose supporters are strongly oppose to a U.S. attack on a neighboring Muslim state. When Wolfowitz visited Ankara last week, he brought a big bag of incentives for Turkey, including economic assistance, a role in deciding the future of northern Iraq and full integration with Europe.

"The United States has become the champion of Turkey joining the European Union," said a European diplomat, noting that Wolfowitz spent one-third of a major foreign policy address in London supporting Turkish political aspirations. "These things are all linked."

U.S. experts on Turkey believe that Ankara will eventually go along with the Bush administration's wishes on Iraq, and provide Washington the facilities it needs, if only because Turkey cannot afford to stand aside, given the geopolitical stakes involved.

Successive Turkish governments have been determined to prevent the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish state in northern Iraq, fearing that this would encourage secessionist pressures from Turkey's own Kurdish minority.

A former Turkish prime minister, Turgut Ozal, summed up the Turkish dilemma on Iraq when he noted that during the run-up to the Gulf War, Turkey wanted to be "at the table as a guest, not as a menu item."

In order to secure a minimum level of international endorsement of an attack on Iraq, the Bush administration will need the support of Britain and France, who have veto rights on the Security Council. While London has loyally supported Washington throughout the current crisis with Iraq, the two governments' positions are not identical. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw last week made clear that London wants the inspectors to be given time to "nail" Hussein's "lies."

France, meanwhile, has the taken the lead in insisting on a second U.N. resolution to clear the way for a U.S. attack on Iraq. In the end, however, most observers expect the French to fall into line. "The French will be persnickety in demanding respect for international law," said a European diplomat, "but when the chips are down, they will be there."