To Inspect or Not to Inspect

Much has been said about the need for the Bush administration to make the case publicly that an invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein would be justified. Such a justification, wrought out in open debate, is in fact critical.

The alternative to an invasion, presumably, would be resumption of international arms inspections in Iraq. Those favoring that approach – most recently including Secretary of State Colin Powell – have their own justifying to do.

The argument against resumed inspections is, essentially, that Mr. Hussein has become so adept at hiding his weapons programs that no amount of inspecting could unearth everything. So why bother? Moreover, the Iraqi leader is wedded to weapons of mass destruction, and the only way to ensure that Iraq never makes such arms operational is to get rid of Hussein.

Some strong voices, including former UN arms inspectors who served in Iraq, say that point of view ignores the substantial work already accomplished by inspectors, whom Iraq forced to exit in 1998. These experts claim that up to 95 percent of Hussein's chemical, biological, and nuclear capabilities were destroyed by inspection teams through the 1990s. Some rebuilding has taken place since '98, certainly, but renewed inspections could, in their view, again restrain Hussein's military ambitions.

Secretary Powell has called fresh inspections an important "first step." The inevitable question is, toward what?

The administration was quick to assert that the secretary's statement was not at odds with earlier words from Vice President Cheney and others backing Hussein's removal and questioning the effectiveness of inspections. Inspections, however, could just be one element in seeing that the Iraqi dictator lives up to his post-Gulf War obligations, or else.

A logical next step for the US might be to press vigorously at the UN for a new, no-holds-barred inspection regime that would force Baghdad to open its doors again or find out what "else" means.

The inspections card is on the table. It should be carefully played.

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