Is war on Iraq inevitable?

Remaining scenarios for avoiding a violent conflict in the Persian Gulf

In Washington, the steady din of the Bush administration's sword-rattling may be obscuring the fact that possibilities remain for the United States and Iraq to settle their differences without going to war.

Some peace scenarios are admittedly far-fetched. Saddam Hussein might jet off to palmy exile on the Riviera, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggested Wednesday, but it seems unlikely. President George W. Bush might simply change his mind, and decide to contain Mr. Hussein instead of forcing his disarmament. Given the determination of Mr. Bush's rhetoric, that now seems unlikely, too.

But between these extremes there is a narrow opening – a very narrow opening – through which peace might crawl. Such a solution might depend crucially on two things: Hussein's recognition of the hopelessness of any resistance, and an administration determination that weapons inspectors truly had the run of Iraq.

"I don't think the administration would go to war if Iraq was allowing inspections to proceed rapidly and without constraint," says Stephen Walt, a professor of international politics at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

It's an indication of how far down the road toward armed conflict the current crisis has gone that the question "Can we avoid war?" elicits amused chuckles from some Washington experts.

Such a reaction may reflect how tough the administration's rhetoric has been.

Constant talk of Iraqi "regime change" as official US policy (and it is official policy, according to congressional resolutions that have so ordered it) has made it seem that the administration will accept nothing less than Hussein's removal from power. Considering the administration's depiction of him as evil and ruthless, it seems that they regard Hussein himself as Iraq's most dangerous weapon of mass destruction.

And what kind of dictator decides to just step down and hand the levers of power over to others? It has happened – the Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran fled in the face of domestic revolt. Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier eventually decided that life in France as an ex-strongman might not be so bad after all.

But Hussein is made of ruthless stuff, and does not appear to face internal revolts that threaten his life or power. That makes war seem inevitable.

"I cannot imagine any circumstance under which President Bush will make his State of the Union address in the third week of January, 2003, without having successfully brought about regime change in Baghdad," says Raymond Tanter, a Middle East expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It's either Saddam or Bush, at this point."

Yet it is possible that the Iraqi leader is not suicidal. Given the forces arrayed against him, he may decide what seems obvious to many in Washington: If he doesn't concede virtually everything the US asks for, he is likely to be an ex-dictator, one way or another, very soon.

Conversely, the administration has never really defined what "regime change" might entail. It is a goal of US Iraq policy, but one of many. Officials talk more often, and more forcefully about the "disarmament" of Iraq via eliminating its capacity to develop weapons of mass destruction. "The president has never equated regime change with invasion," says Ivo Daalder, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "He has been very astute about this."

Thus the bottom line: If Iraq truly allows weapons inspections without constraint, war might be avoided. Such inspections, if carried out under the mandate of tougher UN resolutions, might satisfy the basic US desire to make sure Hussein no longer has the capacity to develop chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, in an interview on Thursday, said that previous inspections in Iraq "did a good job." "Is there a way to put together an inspections regime that is tougher than the one currently on the books [of past UN resolutions]?" he asked.

Of course, few in the administration believe that Hussein will ever really allow such inspections, despite his recent overtures to the UN. Recent history shows that the Iraqi dictator will use every means to frustrate inspectors if, in fact, they are allowed to return. And the US could well be looking for any pretext to begin bombing, having decided on that course long ago.

"When a presidential administration is looking for an opportunity to go to war, it's almost always possible for it to find one," says Stephen Walt of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

But if the UN Security Council can agree on a new resolution or series of resolutions regarding Iraq – and that's a big "if" – the US might then find it difficult to disregard an international consensus that inspections were working. "If the inspections work, [Bush] can say, 'well, we got tough and it worked, so I achieved my objective without the loss of life,'" says Lawrence Korb of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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