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More odds on Iraq

December 21st, 2002

I’m definitely in a minority of one in thinking that the odds of war with Iraq have declined over the past month. The Slate Saddamometer has the odds rising from 50 per cent, just before the Iraqi declaration (or non-declaration) to 72 per cent after Powell’s declaration that Iraq was in ‘material breach’. And virtually every newspaper commentary has declared that war is on the way.

It’s true, contrary to my expectation, that the Iraqi government seems to have made no serious attempt to account for (or even explain away) the stocks of WMDs that were unaccounted for in 1998. I’m more impressed, though, by the dogs that haven’t barked in the night. Two are particularly notable. First, at any time after the declaration, the US Administration could have brought the process to an end by producing the clear evidence it had claimed (or at least strongly suggested) it had of Iraqi weapons programs. Second, on Thursday the US could have declared that the omissions in the Iraqi declaration were, in themselves, grounds for war.

Now that neither of these has happened, the decision has pretty clearly been deferred until Blix reports on 26 January. According to todays NYT, the US will now begin handing over its evidence to the inspectors, but no-one seems to expect too much from this.

Obviously, if the inspectors discover weapons (or a susipcious factory with locked gates and armed guards) the game is up for Saddam. The same is probably true if interviews with Iraqi scientists produce a really convincing defector, though presumably such a defector could point the way to physical evidence in any case.

But the likelihood that the inspectors won’t find anything and won’t face serious obstruction has risen, not fallen, in the last month. Over a hundred sites have already been inspected, including those that the US and UK governments pointed to as most suspicious. Apart from a couple of low-grade incidents where the person with the keys was out to lunch, there don’t seem to have been any compliance problems. Presidential palaces, supposedly an insuperable sticking point, have been opened up promptly.

Suppose that this continues until 26 January. By then, hundreds of sites will have been investigated, the best US intelligence will have been tested out, and the key Iraqi scientists will have been interviewed. If nothing has turned up, I can’t see how Blix’s report can possibly provide Bush with a casus belli. And by then, it will be too late to go back to the omissions in the declaration.

If I thought that those predicting war had some particular expertise, I’d defer to their wisdom. But on issues of this kind, I’m happy to back my own judgement even against an overwhelming majority. After all, I’d be willing to bet that most of those reproducing war hype today swallowed the hype about Y2K three years ago.

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