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The Bush foreign policy team is not, as its members delight in pointing out, the Clinton foreign policy team. Which is why it is so odd that they have been repeating one of the Clinton era's favorite mantras. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, Colin Powell angrily demanded that Iraq readmit the U.N. weapons inspectors it expelled in 1998. Two weeks earlier the president explained, "Iraq is on the screen" because "after all, they're not letting our inspectors in." And, a week before that, Bush told reporters, "I expect Saddam Hussein to let inspectors back into the country." Most of his foreign policy advisers, however, expect no such thing. In fact, it is an outcome they wish to avoid at all costs. Because, once the first U.N. inspector sets foot in Baghdad, Saddam will have seized the initiative in the coming conflict between the United States and Iraq.

So why is the Bush team repeating the inspections line at every turn? Not because they mean it: With the exception of a few officials at the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, hardly anyone in the U.S. government has faith in the U.N. inspections regime. "The [administration] is just following up on the State of the Union," explains one senior official, "keeping the message out there that Iraq is a problem." And reminding the world about Saddam's arsenal is an easy way to do so, particularly since the State of the Union address defined the Iraqi threat in terms of weapons of mass destruction. The problem is, that definition points to a solution--weapons inspections--which could easily undermine the Bush team's true aim: regime change. Officials at the White House, Pentagon, and State Department downplay the possibility that the Iraqi dictator might actually call our bluff and admit inspectors. "The feeling is, we don't have to worry because we can trust Saddam to be Saddam," says one. But what if we can't? The point hasn't been lost on Baghdad's foreign ministry.

In the aftermath of President Bush's State of the Union address, Iraqi officials launched a diplomatic offensive-- dispatching emissaries to, among other things, deliver the message that Baghdad was ready to "energize" relations with the European Union and begin negotiations on inspections with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. (Annan replied that, in the interest of "substantive dialogue," he would "check his calendar.") Saddam has also sent representatives to Russia and China; tried to initiate a dialogue with Kuwait; asked U.N. nuclear inspectors back into the country; and even extended an invitation to a U.N. human rights expert.

Former U.N. chief weapons inspector Richard Butler argues that Iraq's proposals will surely prompt the Europeans to say the United States "should get into talks with Iraq rather than take military action." And, indeed, the Europeans have begun touting the idea of a credible and intrusive inspections regime--one that won't be so easy for the United States to dismiss. Last week German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder demanded "unconditional inspections," while French diplomats have hinted to U.S. officials that they would support punishing future inspections violations with force. Which sounds nice, except they probably won't. Countries like France, which refused to accept the conclusions of a December 1998 U.N. inspection report detailing Iraqi obstructions, have in the past defined "violation" in rather narrow terms. "Once the moment of crisis passes, France and Russia will revert to supporting Iraq," says Patrick Clawson, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Both have a record of crafting compromises that are halfway between what is necessary and what Saddam will accept." Moreover, the actual criteria for judging Iraqi compliance rests with the United Nations, which has a vested interest in certifying that Saddam has not thwarted what will, after all, be a U.N. enterprise--a vested interest neatly exemplified by Annan's 1998 declaration that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Saddam is "a man I can do business with."

In fact, such compromises have since been built into the inspections system. After the collapse of the previous weapons inspections regime in 1998, the rules changed. Under the terms of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Committee (UNMOVIC) that were set in 1999, Iraq no longer has to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction to gain a reprieve from U.N. sanctions; it merely needs to demonstrate "cooperation." UNMOVIC was also designed to be "more aligned with the rest of the U.N. system, rather than being supported by the major Western countries"--another way of saying that it was designed to be less responsive to the United States. And UNMOVIC's executive chairman, Hans Blix, has a reputation for being far less forceful than Butler, the gruff Australian who previously held the post--a reputation Blix earned by, among other things, his utter failure to uncover Iraq's nuclear program when he was director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) before the Gulf war. Then there is Saddam's role. Administration officials seem confident it will never come to this, but if weapons inspectors actually do set foot inside Iraq, the Iraqi dictator will likely pick up where he left off in 1998--playing what Iraqi defector Khidhir Hamza calls "the same old game of hide and seek." Even if UNMOVIC did find evidence of weapons of mass destruction, that would only begin what former deputy chairman of the U.N. weapons inspections team Charles Duelfer calls the "salami-slicing" or, as several members of the Bush team prefer, the "palace game." That game reduces American presidents to pleading the case for war against Iraq not on the basis of sweeping principles or blatant Iraqi malfeasance, but on the grounds that Iraqi officials have placed a particular palace or a warehouse off-limits to inspectors--a causus belli that countries like Russia and France have rejected in the past. Nonetheless, a senior administration official insists that "even if inspectors do go in, the first time they get shut out, that's all the cause we need." But if the Bush team plans to incur all the costs of multilateralism without gaining any of the diplomatic benefits, then why not skip the exercise altogether?

Ultimately, of course, the fundamental problem with framing America's conflict with Iraq in terms of weapons inspections is that it's simply not true. The problem with Saddam isn't his toys. It's Saddam. Which is why the answer isn't more weapons inspections and why the Bush administration has rightly enshrined regime change as an official aim of U.S. policy. Yet, having suggested--to Saddam and to domestic and international audiences--that inspections offer an appropriate solution, the administration must now brace for the possibility that it may get what it's asking for. Hence, it has begun debating how to make Saddam an offer he can't accept--by, for instance, employing the compliance standards of the 1991 cease-fire; insisting that inspectors not begin work until the Iraqi dictator has provided a credible inventory of his arsenal; or delivering what one official describes as a "Taliban-like" ultimatum. As Powell put it last week, "The inspectors have to go back in under our terms, under no one else's terms.... The burden is on this evil regime to demonstrate to the world that they are not doing the kinds of things we suspect them of." The burden, however, may soon be our own.