Slow War, or Slow Peace?

Seldom has war approached with such deliberate slow-motion vagueness.

One of the virtues of such a non-rapid response by America's rapid response forces is that all parties can explore various paths to a non-war solution in Iraq. Grim as the impasse now looks, we trust they won't give up.

Washington has announced what its cruise missiles and bunker-penetrating weapons can do against Iraqi targets. It has brandished its pragmatism by saying it doesn't expect massive aerial attacks to delete all hidden chemical and biological weapon stocks, or to hit Saddam Hussein.

And President Clinton has sent his viziers for war and diplomacy around the globe, at a pace that is both urgent and leisurely, in a largely futile effort to drum up support for a semi-war on Iraq. Semi, that is, because war is not usually pursued by stating in advance that no ground forces will be used.

Now, at last, the president plans to rouse the American public with the arguments his agents have used for weeks in trying to sway world leaders.

One reason for this slow-motion path to war is logistics. Even with modern transport aircraft and ships, it takes time to assemble an air strike force and ground and sea defenses to protect it. The situation resembles an 1868 slow-motion war in which then-superpower Britain spent months shipping an elephant-borne army from India to Africa to force a self-anointed "king of kings," Emperor Theodore of Ethiopia, to free some British hostages. Like Saddam, who sees himself as a new King Nebuchadnezzar, Theodore was alternately defiant and craftily accommodating.

It now falls to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to try to convert one of Saddam's compromise offers into a genuine return to full UN weapons inspections. Baghdad has floated a plan to let UN inspectors accompanied by Security Council diplomats inspect "presidential palaces," but only for a limited period. What's needed is for Mr. Annan to pin down a plan for inspection of the presidential sites under which chemical and biological weapons technicians will not be limited in time or hampered by any face-saving diplomatic escorts.

If that can be accomplished, the slow-motion aspect of this peculiar semi-war buildup will have proven its worth.

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