So Iraq has agreed to allow UN weapons inspectors back within its borders. The news seems to have spoken of very little else today. (Well, except perhaps for Channel 4's report on the new Peter Gabriel album. Monkeys?)
Looking at this move in retrospect, it seems like an obvious, yet bold one. Many commentators have emphasised this turn of phrase: it's a move in a game of politics. Normally, I would say "stuff and nonsense" to that: calling this political manoeuvering a game is to belittle the seriousness of the conflict. In games, people don't die in their hundreds or thousands when you lose.
But somehow this decision does seem like a move in an high-stakes game of chess. I don't know why. Maybe it's because I feel like I understand it now, whereas a lot of modern political machinations pass straight over my head until I see the summary on the History Channel several years later.
The US is clamouring for Saddam Hussein's head, pure and simple, while the rest of the world wants to rake him over the coals for violating UN resolutions. If Iraq starts to comply with the resolutions, the US finds a substantial chunk of its support taken away from it. Russia and China are applauding this change in Iraq's attitude, and as they are part of the UN Security Council, their opinion really does carry weight.
Iraq's neighbours, some of whom have been reluctantly bowing to US pressure, now have reason to think again. As I've said before, Iraq's prime interests are local. Saddam Hussein will piss off his neighbours (and mightily) when it is opportune for him to do so, but right now he needs their support. And if he can't have their support, he needs to remove their active opposition.
Many (if not most) nations are opposed to the US's blood hunt, and insistence on "regime change" in Iraq. But they do support the enforcement of UN resolutions. By complying with the resolutions, Iraq is now forcing the US to discard a number of cards from its hand, because they are no longer effective. But the US has gone too far in its national mobilisation for war to back down at this point, so George Bush is must now find other ways to justify an attack and his ultimate euphemistic goal of "regime change".
Bush has overplayed his hand--for now. He has been aiming for an attack very soon, and now he must delay this. Even if it only takes days for his spin doctors to come up with a new platform for opposing Saddam Hussein, and for his diplomats to build support for it, the fact is that Iraq just gave the US a political bloody nose.
This is being downplayed by all the media--as it must.
There are a number of reasons for that. Iraq has a history of dicking the UN inspectors about. So this new found spirit of compliance may just be a sham. If I wanted to be cynical, I could say that the media are primarily controlled by US interests, and so editors have publishers breathing down their necks.
But also, look at this in terms of a game again. What are the goals of the opposing players? Saddam Hussein wants to stay in power in Iraq. The George Bush wants Hussein out. So long as those remain the stated goals, there is no possibility of a "draw". There is no solution that allows both parties to walk away and claim their own version of victory.
For Saddam Hussein to relinquish power, there must be war. I don't think there is any alternative there. A war will result in thousands of deaths, and if it happens even after Iraq's compliance with the UN resolutions, the US will suffer, both as a result of impoverished international relations, and also as a result of more terrorist attacks on American soil. (Terrorism is like guerrilla warfare: sooner or later, no matter what your precautions, someone will break through your perimeter, and they'll have a bomb strapped to their chests. Ask Britain. Ask Israel.) So even if George Bush wins, he loses. (But will he care?)
For Hussein to stay in power, George Bush must do a U-turn. And what are the chances of that happening? What would it take for him to stand down US forces, and admit he was wrong?
In his time as president, Bush has proved himself to be incredibly arrogant in the international arena. And he is surrounded by a cabinet of cronies who also believe they walk on water. (Colin Powell probably excepted. Every time I see him on TV, he seems to be more uncomfortable about being the town crier abroad for Bush's policies.)
Yet if war is to be avoided, Bush must climb down. And this will not be achieved by acting all amused over this tactical diplomatic victory on Iraq's part. Bush must be given some way of saving face. Much though I might like to see egg all over it, he must be able to claim his own victory. He must end up with something to show for all of this posturing, otherwise he'll be sodead in the water domestically that he might as well just resign before his term is up.
But what could this be? I don't know. I wish I did.
In the mean time, one wonders about Russia and China. They must be loving this. They know that ultimately their best interests will be served by siding with the US. (Which country is more important to them, strategically and economically?) Yet right now they can legitimately claim to be on Iraq's side. The US must know that they'll come over to their side, but now they must be offered sweeteners to do so.
So if you trace the diplomatic lines back through the last few weeks, you can see that those (and other) nations were pushing for Iraq to comply with the regulations not because they wanted to avoid another war in the Middle East, but because they knew that by following that strategy, they would eventually end up with a bunch of concessions from the US.
When you look at it in that way, it does seem a lot like a game, doesn't it?