For all its pleasing "modalities," Secretary of State Colin Powell's plea for patience this afternoon is unlikely to satisfy folks for whom war with Iraq can't happen fast enough, nor those for whom no amount of evidence would make an attack on Iraq worth the trouble. Powell's three-point proposal for reacting to Iraq's "material breach" of UN Security Council Resolution 1441—continue to audit Iraq's 12,000-page declaration in order to understand Iraq's failure to meet 1441's requirements, give high priority to interviewing Iraqi scientists outside Iraq, and having the inspectors intensify their efforts inside Iraq—amounts to a less than stirring call to arms. But the most telling punt came when Powell was asked whether the United States now plans to release its much-discussed but unseen evidence that Iraq is still developing weapons of mass destruction. "We have of course been sharing our evaluation of the [Iraqi declaration issued on December 7]," the Secretary said. "There are additional forms of support that would make the inspection efforts more targeted and effective, and we are prepared to do that."
He didn't say, in other words, that the United States will share intelligence with the inspectors. This is not a minor matter. For Iraq hawks, the U.S. intelligence isn't an issue since the burden of proof is on Iraq (a locution that has quickly ceased to mean anything); furthermore, releasing this intelligence may compromise national security in some undisclosed manner. Doves contend the Americans are not releasing their intelligence because they don't have the well-known smoking gun (another locution that means little unless your mind's already made up); America's Gulf War ally Syria, for example, is complaining because it hasn't even been allowed to see the full Iraqi declaration. But anybody who views with skepticism the evidence of things unseen would like at least some proof that Saddam Hussein has been caught as red-handed as the United States wants us to believe. Without this, Powell's litany of past Iraqi offenses should come off as little more than a new iteration of old claims.
For the fact that Powell's speech didn't play this way, we may have to thank Hans Blix, the universally maligned chief United Nations weapons inspector. Defending the never-popular Swede may seem an exercise in contrarianism for its own sake (and this one probably is); but without Blix's press conference early this morning, another State Department Jeremiad would have played to a disinterested audience, evidence more of American determination to find a casus belli than of Saddam's trickery. Blix's announcement that the Iraqi declaration contained nothing new makes U.S. efforts to get tough more convincing than they would have had otherwise.
This was not supposed to be Blix's role. To hear his detractors talk, you'd think Blix had spent his career as a Polonius in Saddam Hussein's court—though his name is more suggestive of a Wagner baritone than a Shakespeare courtier. "Milquetoast Hans Blix," tough-guy editor Russ Smith calls him. "[T]he bureaucrat weapons inspector whose most salient characteristic is politeness," says Charles Krauthammer. "[S]ee-no-evil U.N. choice for chief inspector approved by Saddam," spits William Safire. "[A] softie," Mona Charen seethes. "No one should judge [Blix] before he has had a chance to prove himself," William Kristol says, then goes on to judge him for a few unsparing paragraphs. George Will, in a textbook example of Freudian projection, labels Blix "a combination of Mr. Magoo and Inspector Clouseau, and he won't do!"
This is a striking display of invective for a man saddled with the boring, frustrating task of going around Iraq looking for hidden stockpiles of anthrax and mustard gas—with the knowledge that your job is as much a back door for getting a war started as it is a real task of police work.
Add to this that the on-the-ground inspections are—unless your desire is to see them fail— the only part of the United Nations process that provide any cause for optimism. The inspectors have so far turned up no evidence, but the fact that they have so far gone without a hitch (a point hawks dismiss as proof that the Iraqis are leading the inspectors down the garden path) may make it easier for the UN to turn up the heat, as Secretary Powell is now requesting.
Blix's speech this morning supported U.S. claims that there are significant gaps in the Iraqi record. "There is a good bit of information about non-arms related activities," he said. "Not much information about the weapons … The absence of supporting evidence is what we are talking about, mainly." That may not be a forceful enough comment to make hawks happy, but pleasing the pro-war faction isn't his job.
Looming over this process is that the United States continues building up its force in the area, and buying off vile despots who may line up with a new American war on Iraq. It's becoming harder to believe that the war fix is not in, and in that sense, Blix's job is a kind Camus-like quest to continue striving for its own sake. Like decent existentialists, though, the inspectors are going at it with gusto, never acknowledging the essential absurdity of their task. The case against Saddam may or may not be made. But the case against Blix looks pretty thin.