Send in the Marines?

France's foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, made an intriguing and little-noticed counteroffer at the United Nations.

It was the least he could do, as a leader of the antiwar opposition, in the face of persuasive evidence against Iraq presented by Secretary of State Colin Powell Wednesday.

Mr. de Villepin, notably, didn't dispute that Iraq has now clearly violated Resolution 1441 (and therefore should be subject to "serious consequences") by hiding mobile weapons, refusing interviews with Iraqi scientists, and duping UN inspectors. He didn't even hope that Iraq might confess all, given more time.

Rather, he called for a tripling of the number of UN inspectors in Iraq, locating them across the country, and placing permanent surveillance at sites already inspected.

He asked the other Security Council members: "Why go to war, if there still exists some unused capacity [in weapons inspections]?"

Mr. Powell anticipated such an argument for more widespread UN inspections. After showing evidence of some 18 trucks carrying mobile biological weapons, he asked how these few vehicles could be found among Iraq's tens of thousands of trucks spread over thousands of miles.

Mr. de Villepin's counteroffer, while it ignores the issue of UN resolve being laughably irresolute, may nonetheless be an opening for an agreement among council members - an agreement that still could allow President Bush to topple Saddam Hussein's regime, but do so peacefully.

France's idea of an ever-expanding "capacity" for inspections could, at some point, lead to an effective UN occupation, led by US troops as guards or even inspectors.

The Hussein regime would be both boxed in physically and humiliated in the eyes of Iraqis and other Arabs. Either Hussein would fall or pick a fight he would lose.

This idea is not mere speculation. It's being played out this week as chief inspector Hans Blix travels to Baghdad to demand that Hussein agree to let unmanned US spy planes fly over Iraq.

After the U-2s fly, why not let in US Marines? Quelle différence?

That both France and Mr. Bush could be this close to an agreement is a testament to both. Despite his effective threat of war, Bush deserves credit for his forbearance in going to the UN. And France has at least presented useful ideas. Both clearly realize the dangers of Iraq's weapons, especially in terrorist hands.

With even more forbearance by the US, and more French acceptance of the US interest in urgent disarmament of Iraq, a war could be history before it starts.

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