Six weeks for Saddam…again

It's another final countdown.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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‘Saddam gets six more weeks’, said a Guardian headline on 1 February 2003, as President Bush and Prime Minister Blair agreed to give UN weapons inspectors more time ‘to persuade a sceptical France and Arab countries to come on board for military action against Iraq’ (1). ‘This is a matter of weeks, not months’, said Bush. ‘Any attempt to delay the process for months would be resisted by the US.’ (2)

Déjà vu, anyone? In November 2002, the headlines told us that ‘America lays down plans to strike within weeks’ (3). Then we were told that America’s ‘top military officers’ had promised that US forces would ‘invade Iraq well before the end of the year’ (that’s December 2002), while Bush said he would not ‘tolerate months of game-playing’ by Saddam (4).

According to Blair, Saddam has had more than enough ‘last chances’. Giving Iraq another six weeks to disarm is generous, Blair said yesterday, as it’s already been ‘eight weeks since Saddam Hussein’s last chance, and 600 weeks since his first chance’ (5). So Blair and Bush are now calling on UN weapons inspectors to spend the 14 weeks in between Saddam’s last last chance and his next last chance finding the weapons he built in the 600 weeks since his first last chance. Got that?

A week might be a long time in politics; in war talk, weeks can drag on for months. The Bush and Blair camps have issued deadline after deadline, endless ultimatums and first, last and final chances in relation to Iraq – and don’t seem to have stuck to any of them. The deadlines pass in a flurry of rhetoric, with assurances from Bush and Blair that ‘next time, we’re serious’, though when it comes actually to taking action tomorrow never comes.

British and US officials have been talking deadlines and war for nearly a year. In February 2002, as the Bush administration finalised ‘Phase Two’ of its war on terror, Bush and Blair were said to be ‘plotting war on Iraq’ (6). Apparently, they planned ‘to launch a war against Iraq if Saddam does not agree to deadlines to destroy his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction’ (7). The UK Observer reported that ‘Saddam will be set a deadline to allow in weapons inspectors who will oversee the destruction of Iraq’s weaponry or face military consequences’ (8).

Seven months later, in September 2002, Bush finally started the ‘countdown to war’. In his speech to the UN general assembly on 12 September 2002, Bush said that unless Saddam complies with all the past UN resolutions, ‘action will be unavoidable’. Bush may have avoided laying down a firm deadline in his UN speech, but according to one report, ‘diplomats at the UN were in no doubt that the speech set the war clock ticking’ (9). And it’s been ticking ever since.

In the September debates between the UN and the US over what kind of weapons inspections to impose on Iraq (harsh or very harsh), Bush officials were keen to emphasise the ‘last chance nature’ of any deadline for Iraq. According to one European diplomat, the Americans were chasing a ‘“last chance saloon” ultimatum with a high bar’ (what a mixed metaphor), which would stress a three-month compliance period, before considering an invasion. Three months (plus two) later, and still no action has been taken.

Eventually America and the UN agreed to a compromise on weapons inspections, unveiling UN resolution 1441 in November 2002, which called on the Iraqi leadership to submit to inspections and agree to disarm. ‘This time we mean it. This time it’s for real’, said Bush. ‘This will be the seventeenth time that we expect Saddam to disarm.’ (10) And to make sure it was seventeenth time lucky, Bush and co set yet another deadline, giving Saddam just one week to accept resolution 1441, ‘or face the consequences’ (11).

In the event, Saddam’s regime agreed to the resolution two days early, on 13 November 2002. According to one report, this caused great ‘consternation among White House hawks’, with some Bush officials claiming that the early compliance was ‘evidence of the Iraqi leader’s guile’ (12). Another deadline was issued – for Iraq to produce a dossier on its weapons by 8 December 2002 – and again, when Saddam complied one day early, he was denounced for being ‘sly’ and for ‘playing political games’. The outcome? Another deadline – this time for the weapons inspectors to compile their final report on Iraq by 27 January 2003.

This constant issuing and reissuing of deadlines during November and December was seen by many as an old-style war game on Bush and Blair’s part. For some liberal commentators, the way that Britain and America threatened the Iraqi leadership if they failed to meet the deadlines, but then lambasted them when they did, showed up the ‘pre-determination to have a war’. For one writer, it is because Bush has ‘already decided to invade’ that he sees the deadlines as ‘inconveniences’ to be brushed aside.

No doubt there’s an element of truth in that – and Western politicians sometimes undermined the authority of their own deadlines by making a mockery of Iraq’s compliance with them. Such was the case when UK foreign secretary Jack Straw denounced Baghdad’s weapons dossier as probably a ‘pack of lies’ before he had even read it (13). In the run-up to the publication of Iraq’s dossier, Straw made great play of demanding ‘the truth’ from Baghdad, but then made up his mind about its truthfulness or otherwise without even engaging the detail – leaving him looking at least as stupid as lying Iraqi diplomats.

But the shifting of the goalposts in relation to Iraq, and the move from one deadline to another, also captured the role that the deadlines themselves started to play. The endless issuing of ever-shifting deadlines was not so much a precursor to military action, as an important act in and of itself. What better way to keep Iraq alive as an international issue, while avoiding actually taking any action over it, than by issuing harsh deadlines demanding Baghdadi compliance?

The British and US governments have appeared uncertain of taking decisive action against Iraq, while keeping it their big issue of the day. Behind Bush officials’ bellicose rhetoric about the threat of Saddam, American leaders are cautious about taking firm unilateral action against Iraq, instead returning to the UN again and again for multilateral agreement.

Likewise, the British government may have little choice but to support America’s foreign policy but it often seems less than keen about doing so. For our cautious leaders, deadlines seem to have become a tool in their international armoury – a way of keeping the heat on Saddam and keeping it off the British and American alliance.

What about the ‘final deadline’ – 27 January 2003? This was supposed to be the biggie, when the weapons inspectors submitted their final report on Iraq’s weapons to the UN security council, and when the US and the UK (and others) would make up their minds about what to do next. According to some who are cynical about Bush’s intentions, the 27 January deadline would be ‘turned into a final justification for war’ – while for some on the pro-war lobby, 27 January would finally give the clarity needed to move ahead. Instead, 27 January came and went – with the usual statements about Iraq deceiving the UN, but no indication of what might happen as a result.

Even before the arrival of 27 January, Bush officials started to talk down its importance. A few days before, US secretary of state Colin Powell said: ‘27 January is a date that [the weapons inspectors] have been asked to report to the council. That’s all it is….It’s not a D-day.’ (14) When pressed on the question of an actual date for a deadline, Powell said, ‘We are in no great rush to judgement today or tomorrow’. And when he was pressed further, one report said: ‘Mr Powell apparently felt unable to offer any assurances so far into the future.’ (15)

On 27 January 2003 itself, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was asked if Bush’s State of the Union address the following day would include that all-elusive deadline date. According to one report: ‘Fleischer said that Bush’s address will not include a deadline nor a declaration of war but will include “principled, very lofty” statements in defence of freedom “that point out the risks that the United States and our friends around the world face from a leader who has been on a relentless pursuit of weapons that will inflict millions of casualties…”.’ (16) Yet again no firm date – but plenty of rhetoric.

The deadline farce suggests that Bush and Blair are good at the war talk, at making stringent demands of the Baghdad regime, but not so sure about what kind of action to take, or when, or how. Now Saddam has been given another six weeks – his final last chance in a long line of final last chances. The war clock ticks on….

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Is Blair really ‘risking everything’ over Iraq?, by Mick Hume

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Saddam gets six more weeks, Guardian, 1 February 2003

(2) Saddam gets six more weeks, Guardian, 1 February 2003

(3) America lays down plans to strike within weeks, Guardian, 9 November 2002

(4) America lays down plans to strike within weeks, Guardian, 9 November 2002

(5) Blair: Iraq facing ‘final phase’, Guardian, 3 February 2003

(6) Blair and Bush to plot war on Iraq, Observer, 24 February 2003

(7) Blair and Bush to plot war on Iraq, Observer, 24 February 2003

(8) Blair and Bush to plot war on Iraq, Observer, 24 February 2003

(9) Bush sets the war clock ticking, Guardian, 13 September 2002

(10) Bush’s key targets: Iraq and terrorism, International Herald Tribune, 8 November 2002

(11) Bush’s key targets: Iraq and terrorism, International Herald Tribune, 8 November 2002

(12) Saddam’s move could split hawks and doves, Guardian, 14 November 2002

(13) UK backing for UN inspectors, BBC News, 8 December 2002

(14) In a bind over Iraq, Guardian, 27 January 2003

(15) In a bind over Iraq, Guardian, 27 January 2003

(16) US says January 27 reports show Iraq not complying with UN, US Department of State Washington File, 27 January 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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