President Bush is clearly frustrated with the way inspections have unfolded since the passage of U.N. Resolution 1441. No dramatic caches of weapons were uncovered (although the significance of the recently discovered chemical warheads should not be minimized) and no “smoking gun” has materialized. Some have suggested that the full story will never be known until there is regime change in Baghdad that can produce what Charles Krauthammer has termed “retroactive evidence.”
The president is growing impatient with the inspections process, as was seen in his reaction to suggestions by our European allies that more time is needed: “This business about more time — how much more time do we need to see clearly that he is not disarming?”
Saddam Hussein may not be actively disarming, but the new inspections system foisted upon him by the United Nations is also not to his liking. Unlike the earlier regime, which was very solicitous of Iraqi sovereignty and sensibilities, the current operation is much more in line with General Charles Boyd’s conception of an inspections regime able to go “where it wants, inspects what it wants, whenever it wants, for as long as it wants, and to continue until there is satisfaction on the part of the inspectors — and the international community — that there is virtually nothing left in the way of a WMD capability in Iraq.” And this poses a terrible danger to the longevity of his regime.
Obviously, as long as inspectors are loose in Iraq, Hussein’s desire to develop and produce weapons of mass destruction remains frustrated. But there is a greater problem.
The Iraqi regime is a pharaonic despotism. It is legitimized in the eyes of its subjects by promoting the myth that its leader is no ordinary mortal. The omnipresent portraits, statues, and monuments to Hussein throughout Iraq reinforce this message. The new inspections regime, however, undermines it by making Hussein subject to its directives. This is a lesson well understood by the Beloved Leader in Pyongyang, who has no desire to admit foreign inspectors into his hermit kingdom.
Hussein could spin the old UNSCOM system as a gracious concession, a gesture of goodwill on the part of an Iraq that wanted to demonstrate how it was unjustly persecuted, secure in the knowledge that key symbolic sites — including his myriad number of presidential palaces — would remain exempt.
The new set of inspectors, however, cannot be rationalized as “guests” — especially if they utilize to the hilt their authority to go anywhere unconstrained by Iraqi authority. It is regrettable that inspectors have not always insisted on this in the past few months, but nonetheless, the guards and minions who staff Hussein’s inner sancta — places closed off to ordinary Iraqis — have witnessed the spectacle of “ordinary” foreigners treading where no Iraqi dare go.
Over time, intrusive inspections have the ability to erode Hussein’s mystique. Every palace inspected, every scientist rousted from bed to have his papers and personal effects inventoried, is another small erosion in Hussein’s imperial aura, another intolerable act of lèse-majesté.
This is why Hussein appears to be courting war with the United States, for that is a noble task for a glorious leader — not submitting to the dictates of international civil servants. When Hussein meets with his generals and says that the smile in his soul “reflects my joy at the path we chose” and that he is “happy to be the leader of men of your caliber,” it reflects his understanding that a military clash with the United States enables him to reclaim his personal dignity. Victory or defeat is irrelevant. Hussein would prefer to be remembered in history as the great warrior who fought against “impossible” odds, akin to a Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec emperor, still remembered for his valiant defense of Tenochtitlan, or a Constantine, the heir to the Caesars who fell in battle as Constantinople was overwhelmed by the Ottomans. He does not want to end up as a Noriega or Milosevic, a beaten leader escorted in handcuffs to face a victor’s tribunal.
Moreover, Hussein believes that he can seize victory from the jaws of defeat — as long as he can continue to cast a spell upon the consciousness of the Arab world. His reference this past week to the “Mongols of this age” being led “to commit suicide” upon the walls of Baghdad is telling. The Mongols, of course, succeeded in sacking Baghdad in 1258. Two years later, however, they were decisively beaten in the battle of Ain Jalud in Galilee, in an encounter that shattered forever the myth of Mongol invincibility.
The longer inspections continue, however, the more desperate Hussein becomes. Obviously, he runs the risk that even more compelling proof of his wrongdoing will emerge. But the spectacle of enduring intrusive inspections sends an even more chilling message: The autocrat is not truly the master of his own domain.
It is in our interests to keep the inspections process going, and, if possible, to tighten it and make it even more intrusive. Not only will this give Washington additional time to deploy its forces and strengthen fragile alliances, it will accelerate the disintegration of Hussein’s public image. It will allow the unrest among his senior generals and officials (if news reports about this are accurate) to grow. If war is inevitable, let us ensure it occurs on our timetable, not Hussein’s.
— Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.