by Joshua Micah Marshall

For weeks the White House has been pressuring Congress to vote before the November election on a bill authorizing the president to wage war on Iraq. On the surface, the news that the Democrats are now willing to schedule such a vote appeared to signal a White House victory. Actually, the Democrats' newfound willingness to give the president his "use of force" resolution is more a sign of how much the consequences of such a vote have diminished since late last week and how far the debate over Iraq and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has spun out of the administration's control.

After weeks of saber-rattling by administration hawks led to widespread speculation that the United States was prepared to launch an invasion even without U.N. sanction, President Bush's speech before the world body last week decisively recast the Iraq debate, swelling the president's support at home and getting erstwhile allies like Russia and France -- who opposed American unilateralism -- to start pressuring Iraq to readmit inspectors or else.

The speech was rightly hailed as a triumph for the president. But much less attention was given to the change of policy that brought that shift in debate or its implications.

For months, White House policy has been regime change, pure and simple. For all its Cheney-ite bluster, the president's speech at the U.N. shifted the policy and debate to Iraqi compliance with a panoply of U.N. resolutions. That was a key victory for the policy favored by Colin Powell, and America's allies reacted accordingly. But Saddam's rapid decision to call the president's bluff exposed the consequences of the president's policy change -- not pleasant ones for administration hard-liners.

No one believes Saddam has had a true change of heart about inspections and weapons of mass destruction. Certainly, he'll take every chance he can get to evade or obstruct the truly invasive inspections that could denude him of his WMD arsenal. But until he does so -- until he stiffs the inspectors and gives the U.S. the pretext to attack -- the administration has little real choice but to go along with the process taking shape at the U.N., the one the president himself called for. Yesterday the president told reporters: "It's [Saddam's] latest ploy, his latest attempt not to be held accountable for defying the United Nations." No doubt it is a ploy, or at least a play for time. It would be different if the president had gone to the U.N. and said, "Time's up. Saddam never complied with the Gulf War resolutions. Now we're going to invade. Anyone who wants to join us is welcome to come along." But he didn't. He dared the U.N. to redeem itself by forcing Saddam to comply with its resolutions. Having said that, he has little choice but to let the U.N. try to force Saddam to make good on his pledge or see if he'll try to wriggle out of it. And, as many hawks are now beginning to realize, that could take months or even years. If Democrats now seem less skittish about giving the president a vote, it's likely because he now seems locked into a policy tied to the U.N. and one that might drag on for some time.

Some administration supporters insist that the president has simply gone too far out on the limb to walk back. "We've reached a point of no return," says one D.C. Iraq-hawk in close touch with regime-change supporters in and out of the administration. "The rhetoric was just too high the last two weeks. It's like 'No New Taxes.'"

But the rapid turn of events has left most ardent supporters of regime change in the press floundering in a mix of disingenuousness and denial, unable to come to grips with the implications of the president's policy or the changed state of the debate either at home or abroad. The turn of events has left some of the White House's most fulsome advocates in the press busily eating words that they wrote only a week before. Last week, Weekly Standard Executive Editor Fred Barnes predicted the president would take the "gamble" of daring Saddam to readmit inspectors, a choice Barnes believed Saddam either could not or would not do. If he did he would "quickly lose control of his own government and fall from power," Barnes wrote. Today Barnes seemed to have forgotten everything he'd written just days ago. Now he doesn't think the president was taking a gamble at all. Saddam's "disingenuous offer of a return to unconditional arms inspections" changed nothing, Barnes now writes, and only demonstrates that Saddam is "doomed."

Barnes' boss at the Weekly Standard, influential regime change advocate William Kristol, takes a longer, more nuanced view. "At the end of the day," Kristol said last week, "Saddam can't live with an inspections regime that would deprive him of his weapons of mass destruction. Bush can't live with Saddam with weapons of mass destruction. So I think we're on course to regime change." (Like many of the key hawks, Kristol believes that Saddam sees his WMD as literally the basis of his power, both in terms of his prestige inside and outside the country and his regional power aspirations. In the hawks' view, asking Saddam to give up his WMD is basically tantamount to asking him to relinquish power.)

But the argument that Saddam's obsession with keeping his WMD will precipitate war in the short term, rather than the long, runs up against certain key elements of the hawks' own reasoning and, to some degree, simple logic. If Clinton was never serious about overthrowing Saddam and if Bush really is deadly serious about overthrowing Saddam's government -- and Saddam knows that -- that gives him a level of incentive to comply he's never had before. Certainly, Iraq will haggle over details. And if Bush lets up the pressure, Saddam will welsh on his new commitment. But as long as Bush doesn't let up the pressure, Saddam seems likely to comply just enough to avoid giving the United States any pretext to attack. If that happens, much of the momentum for war built up over the summer could dissipate, as 9/11 recedes further. The inspections game could drag on for a year or more. And that thought makes regime-changers see red like nothing else.

To avoid that outcome, regime change supporters have rallied around a more audacious effort: rewriting the president's speech after the fact. That is, maybe the president said that the issue was making Saddam live up to the resolutions, but in fact whether he does or not is really beside the point, because the real point is that Saddam can't be trusted and must be ousted. Gary Schmitt, executive director of the hawkish Project for the New American Century, argues with remarkable frankness that the president's speech only conditionally accepted the legitimacy of the U.N. "In some ways," says Schmitt, "you're saying it's a legitimate body for making legitimate decisions. On the other hand you're saying it's legitimate to the extent that it accomplishes the goals that the institution was supposed to address." In other words, Saddam is an outlaw who has forfeited the protection of the U.N., and whether or not he superficially complies with its rules now is irrelevant: It must sign off on his removal, or itself become irrelevant.

Schmitt, for his part, isn't even sure the administration will even let inspectors get into Iraq before trying to force a change in the terms of the argument. "At some point," says Schmitt, "they've got to come out and make the argument that the kind of inspections that Saddam may be agreeing to are just not satisfactory. I don't think they can sustain their position unless they start making the argument that UNSCOM-lite isn't going to get the job done and in fact it's going to make matters worse. It requires making further arguments and beating the drums along those lines." The letter of the president's speech was resolutions, the regime-changers now say, but its spirit was regime change. And the spirit of the speech is what counts.

But this reasoning seems to partake heavily of wishful thinking. It assumes the president, after making the U.N.'s resolutions the issue, can suddenly pull an about-face and simply invade Iraq. But that seems highly implausible. He would immediately squander all the internationalist goodwill at home and abroad that he gained from his U.N. speech. Indeed, such an action would arguably take relations between the U.S. and the international community to their nadir. If the president truly felt able to call his own shots and define the terms of the coming world debate entirely to his liking, he wouldn't have needed to go to the U.N. at all. Clearly he felt the need to enlist the support, or at least acquiescence, from countries like France and Russia and the Arab states that he seemed to have in hand late last week. Having put his cards on the table last week, can he really pick them up and deal himself a new hand?

The president still has plenty of room to up the ante on Saddam. After UNSCOM inspectors were booted out of Iraq in 1998, the U.N. replaced UNSCOM with a new agency, UNMOVIC. The inspections called for by UNMOVIC are much looser than the old ones. And the president should and no doubt will insist that any new inspections be at least as tough as the old ones. The administration can also insist on a new resolution authorizing force if and when Saddam reneges on his pledge. But it will still be up to Iraq and other Security Council members to decide if and when to say no, if and when to give the president his pretext to let the bombs drop. If the president really isn't serious about trying to enforce the resolutions, then his ultimatum to Saddam and his challenge to the U.N. doesn't really work. It may make sense to other Iraq-hawks in Washington. It may even be the right policy. But it won't fly with the other allies who took the president at his word when he seemed to signal a willingness to work through the U.N.

Rather desperately, some Iraq hawks are arguing that inspectors are only one of the conditions the president laid down. At the U.N. the president demanded Iraqi compliance with a raft of U.N. resolutions requiring, among other things, an accounting of Gulf War POWs, monetary reparations to Kuwait, and an end to political repression inside Iraq. That laundry list of demands was so long, and it was so unlikely that Iraq would comply with it, that the White House would always be left with some example of unfulfilled U.N. requirements to justify war. But within days of the speech it was clear that this reasoning was too clever by half. None of the countries at the U.N. are going to be goaded into backing war against Iraq because it hadn't accounted for some Qatari POWs who probably died a dozen years ago.

Some Iraq hawks are now privately grousing that the difficulties the administration finds itself in prove that Bush should never have gone to the U.N. Others maintain that in the real world, as opposed to the hermetic universe of right-wing think tanks, the administration really had no choice. It's a debate that mimics the internal ones that have been roiling the administration all summer.

One prominent conservative says that the Iraq hawks overlooked a key element in gathering support for any war: a dramatic precipitating event. Danielle Pletka was a much loved and much hated street-fighter in the D.C. Iraq wars of the late 1990s. She's an ardent regime-changer who served until recently as Jesse Helms' chief advisor on Middle East policy. "This is a little bit outside the orthodoxy of the grand 'regime change' crowd," says Pletka, who is now a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, "but one of the main things lacking in the regime change program was always the 'why.'" By the "why," Pletka doesn't mean that the hawks haven't made the case that Saddam's a bad guy or, in her opinion, that the U.S. is justified in overthrowing his government. She means that the Iraq hawks never quite hashed out the immediate rationale for invading.

"To go into Iraq like that without providing some sort of trigger would have proven more difficult than many have envisioned," she says. "When it comes down to actually going in and invading a country and deposing a leader -- for whatever good reason -- when push comes to shove, figuring out how you get your foot in the front door is not as easy as people think. This isn't a Nike commercial. We can't 'just do it.' For people on the outside, it's always easy to say this is the policy. It's gotta happen. Let's go. No problem. But I think the international reality is much more complicated than that."

"The question," says Pletka, "is whether the administration is deft enough to deal with the obstacles which Iraq, with the help of its friends on the Security Council, is going to throw in our way."

Pletka believes the administration is up to that task, but that it will take time. Still, others see an administration boxed in, with no clear path to the goal its most ardent hawks cherish.

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