War can be postponed By Rachel Bronson
Good resolution, bad timing
The strong resolution passed by the United Nations Security Council last week is a credit to the Bush administration. It calls for inspectors to return to Iraq within 45 days and for the inspection team to update the Security Council on Iraq's disarmament 60 day's after that. The Security Council must reconvene if Iraq fails to comply.
The problem is the calendar, not the content. Because it took the administration so long to realize the importance of the United Nations in disarming Iraq, Washington is facing an extremely rigid timeline for war that leaves no room for unanticipated complications. Yet the history of this conflict suggests that such complications always arise.
Rather than building this reality into its plans, the administration is betting that everything will go according to script. It is a risky gamble and an unnecessary one.
The United States is now constrained by the timetable of inspections. According to the resolution, the inspectors have until Dec.23 to begin inspecting. They then have until Feb.21 to present their findings to the Security Council, which will then discuss their implications.
Any military action, then would be highly unlikely before March. March, however, is an inauspicious time to begin fighting. In the early 1990s, American military equipments broke down in the desert due to the Middle East's searing heat.
Experts are fairly confident that the technical problems of the past have been ironed out. But a new obstacle has been added to the mix. Because Saddam Hussein may unleash chemical or biological weapons against U.S troops, they will have to be outfitted in bulky suits that can protect against such weapons. In combat, heat exhaustion and associated problems are expected to severely challenge American forces.
The administration will thus have to choose between two unattractive options: either to begin military action against Iraq prematurely, before the UN process has run its course; or to initiate a military invasion in the spring, a time of rising temperatures and increasingly harsh conditions.
The first option will eliminate most, if not all, international support for military action. The second is militarily irresponsible.
Within the details of the resolution, it is clear that the administration has recognized this conundrum. It has built in a little wiggle room by requiring Iraq to provide an inventory of its own programs by Dec.8.
If Iraq's report is less than satisfactory, Washington could decide to take that as sufficient reason to begin calling up reserves, locking in allied support and moving more material to the region. But the Security Council will undoubtedly demand that nothing happen until the inspectors report back ・that is, until the end of February.
This rigid timetable is of Washington's own making. Utile recently, the Bush administration did not take seriously the role of the United Nations in its Iraq planning. The organization had been considered a sideshow.
But the president's speech Sept.12 to the United Nations showed the folly of such thinking. Within 24 hours of his speech, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League all came out with statements of support for dealing with the Iraq problem within a UN context. Such regional support is crucial to American success.
War rarely occurs on neat timelines, but the administration could get lucky. If not, a third option has always existed but has never been seized upon ・to postpone an assault until next autumn.
This is a viable alternative, but the president must begin preparing for it now. The president should build a diplomatic strategy that makes an autumn confrontation possible. To solve the problem of Iraq, America can afford to wait next autumn for conditions to ripen.
Iraq will inevitably play a cat-and 卜ouse game, which Washington can use to strengthen the case for war. Such a delay will also allow American planners to better think through how to reconstruct Iraq after the fighting. But the diplomacy must begin now.
The writer, director of Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, contributed this comment to The New York Times.