WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's statement to the U.N. Security Council was a compelling case for intensifying international inspection, but not war.
There is no question that the Iraqis are in material breach of more than a dozen U.N. resolutions, including Resolution 1441, and that they husband stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons.
But it is also true that Mr. Hussein is in no position to further develop, let alone deploy, these weapons so long as international monitoring and U.S.-British military forces remain active. The United States and Britain have weakened and walled off the threat, and the United States will retain legitimacy as leader of the global community only if it permits the international inspection regime to conduct its work.
President Bush's speech to the United Nations in September and Mr. Powell's speech Wednesday represent such leadership at its best, but as long as Iraq remains a grave and gathering threat and not an imminent one, it is essential that the international community pursue a diplomatic solution before resorting to force.
Unlike inspection efforts in the 1990s, when the United Nations succeeded in destroying more military equipment than was destroyed in Desert Storm, Mr. Hussein is not blocking or harassing the work of the inspectors. His cat-and-mouse techniques were fully expected, but even this charade will become more difficult as the inspectors reach their full complement as well as the use of U-2 spy planes. They did not receive their first helicopter until a month ago and are only halfway through re-inspecting the 700 suspicious sites that have been identified.
Indeed, Mr. Powell's statement provides the best case for the ability of U.S. and foreign intelligence to gather evidence that can be shared with chief inspector Hans Blix, who has already concluded that "no proscribed programs or activities are regenerated at any site in Iraq." Mr. Powell used the same kind of evidence (e.g., satellite photography, intercepted communications, human intelligence) that U.S. arms negotiators have used for 30 years to verify and monitor arms agreements.
It may be easier to hide chemical and biological weapons than it is to conceal strategic nuclear weaponry, but the statements of Mr. Powell and Mr. Blix as well as the assessments of U.S. and British intelligence demonstrate that Mr. Hussein's game is well-monitored and that he does not represent a threat to his neighbors, let alone the United States and its Western allies.
Unfortunately, there are no similar guarantees from the use of American force and the eventual occupation of Iraq. In fact, the use of force is probably a self-fulfilling prophecy that will guarantee Iraqi cooperation with al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations.
The CIA has already warned the White House and Congress that the only persuasive scenario for Iraqi use of weapons of mass destruction would be after a U.S. attack. Thus, it is war that will increase terror, weapons proliferation, cooperation between states and non-state terrorist organizations and anti-Americanism throughout the Muslim world.
The use of force against Iraq will also divert the attention of the United States from several scenarios that offer much greater danger to the civilized community. These are North Korea's development of nuclear weapons, which the Bush administration covered up for more than a year; nuclear weapons in Pakistan, a state that cannot guarantee the safety and security of such weapons; and the danger of unguarded nuclear stockpiles in Russia, where there are still 20,000 nuclear weapons at more than 120 separate sites.
The Clinton administration left office with programs in place to address the North Korean and Russian problems, but President Bush has walked away from the diplomatic dialogue with North Korea and the strategic arms dialogue with Russia.
The recent decision to alert strategic bombers and deploy an additional aircraft carrier to the Korean peninsula without a diplomatic strategy is a counterproductive rolling of the dice. At the same time, the weakest part of Mr. Powell's statement was his description of Iraq's nuclear program. U.N. inspection efforts essentially ended the Iraqi nuclear program in the 1990s; without fissile material and international assistance, it cannot be resumed.
On balance, the United States has put the United Nations on notice that it cannot ignore Iraq's violations of U.N. resolutions if it wants to remain relevant, and Washington has warned Mr. Hussein that he must cooperate with the international community. At the same time, the Bush administration must understand that it cannot resort to force unilaterally and maintain its leadership of the international community.
Thus we are at a critical juncture at which the United Nations must establish that it can be effective in a difficult global environment, Iraq must return to the international community and the United States must understand that premature use of force will make it more difficult for diplomacy to work in the future.
Melvin A. Goodman is senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a former analyst for Soviet affairs at the CIA.