Beating about the Bush

After reading Bush’s speech, and theviews of various bloggers, including those who commented on my last Iraq post, I remain mystified about the US Administration’s strategy and objectives, if indeed there is a coherent strategy and well-defined objectives.
The majority view, and the one that seemed clearly justified before Bush’s appeal to the UN, was that the Administration was set on invading Iraq in order to get rid of Saddam, and that it was happy to use whichever rationale was most convenient (links to Al-Qaeda, weapons of mass destruction, nastiness of the regime, threat to neighbours etc). On this view, the appeal to the UN was just a sop to Blair, Powell and Kofi Annan. Since Bush’s speech mentioned all of the rationales listed above it fits into the picture.
I find this analysis highly unsatisfactory. The effect of the UN appeal was to push the WMD issue to centre stage, and the same was true of the most recent address, particularly as it was reported outside the US. For example, the one sentence grab from The Economist is “America will strike if the Iraqi leader fails to disarm.”
But, since the centrality of WMD is tied up inextricably with the Security Council resolutions it’s going to be very hard to get a plausible casus belli out of this if Saddam complies with the resolutions at least to the point where the Security Council cannot be persuaded to declare him in breach of them. This is even more true if the Security Council passes a new, tougher, resolution and Saddam complies with that.
One the ‘sop to Blair, Powell and Kofi Annan’ theory none of this matters. The US will just go ahead anyway, either declaring the UN resolution inadequate, unilaterally determining that Saddam has breached it or just ignoring the UN altogether.
The problem is that the resort to the UN has incurred substantial costs. In particular, Blair has taken big risks in arguing the case for UN-backed action against Saddam. If the US changes tack now, he will be left to twist in the wind. Not only will he have no chance of delivering active British involvement in an invasion but he might be pushed towards outright condemnation and the withdrawal of existing British forces. The loss of America’s only reliable ally in Europe will be a big price to pay for Saddam’s scalp.
The same is true of a number of Arab leaders who took substantial risks in persuading Saddam to readmit inspectors. If there was never any intention of going ahead with inspections, why get them to put their heads on the block in this way. It is hard to see any of them giving any co-operation to a unilateral strike now, although they might have done so quietly under other circumstances.
In one sense, this is not critical. The US can no doubt fight and win a war without any allies. But if condemnation extends to the refusal of overflight rights and the use of bases, the war will be much more costly and difficult. Moreover, the greater the international hostility, the greater the Administration’s domestic vulnerability if something goes wrong, and history suggests that something usually does go wrong.
In summary, if the Administration never meant to take the UN process seriously, it was a big mistake to get involved in it at all.
I see a couple of alternative explanations.
One is that, in appealing to the UN, the Administration was gambling that Saddam would refuse to admit inspectors or, alternatively, that it could push through a new resolution that Saddam would be bound to reject. If so, this gamble does not look promising at present.
A second is that there is in fact a Plan B, namely, to get the best resolution possible out of the Security Council and, if Saddam accepts it, to declare victory. On this view, regime change is an ‘ambit claim’ which can be dropped if necessary, at least until Saddam can be caught cheating.
I lean to yet another view, namely that neither Bush himself nor the Administration as a whole has a coherent strategy. Some factions are bent on war while others would prefer Plan B and still others are waiting to see what turns up.
In summary, as I’ve said before, if Bush is pursuing a strategy to force the UN into pushing hard for unfettered weapons inspections and to force Saddam to accept them, he’s doing it with a skill that would do credit to Machiavelli. If, as most commentators assume, he’s pushing towards an inevitable war, then his strategy has been about the worst possible. He would have done far better to stick to the Al-Qaeda link, however weak the evidence.

Note:Thomas Friedman takes much the same view as me.