Washington – With a weekend of large, orderly anti-war demonstrations over, ignored by President Bush at Camp David, he can now resume determined plans to disarm Iraq by threat or use of military force.
Estimates of the crowds that marched here and elsewhere are, as usual, in dispute between police and the protest organizers. But there is little disagreement that they constituted the largest peace demonstrations since Vietnam and the largest ever against a war that hasn’t started.
Still, they lacked much of the agony of the Vietnam protests, which were fired by tens of thousands of American deaths, not to mention young American students’ fears of being drafted and killed in a war in which they did not believe.
In a sense, that fact made last weekend’s turnout all the more remarkable. It appeared to be driven not by revulsion toward what was happening, as was the case in the Vietnam protests, but by concerns about what might happen if the Bush administration follows through on the pre-emptive war for which it is mobilizing.
Regardless of the precise numbers of protesters, the demonstrations did provide the most tangible evidence yet that behind Mr. Bush’s popularity there exists considerable uncertainty about plunging the country into another war while the fight against terrorism continues.
More threatening to those plans is the determination of U.N. Security Council permanent members France and Russia and others to continue the U.N. inspections beyond the Jan. 27 reporting date of Hans Blix, the chief inspector, which the Bush administration hoped would trigger another war-making resolution.
If Mr. Bush ever thought he could just go through the motions of taking the Iraq dispute to the United Nations to placate the international community and then unleash the military, he is now obliged to think again.
Although the administration continues to insist that the inspectors need not find “smoking” weapons of mass destruction to warrant action, their failure so far to do so has given many U.N. members a strong arguing point for extending the time for inspections.
It’s obvious that Saddam Hussein wants to stretch out the inspection process, but such a development is not entirely detrimental to Mr. Bush’s plans, for all his talk of Iraq’s imminent threat. It gives the Pentagon more time to deploy U.S. forces, not to mention to continue almost daily softening-up bombing of targets in Iraq’s no-fly zones, little mentioned by the White House.
The administration insists that the Iraqi regime is already in “material breach” of U.N. resolutions by failing to file a complete account of weapons it has.
But notably the White House did not seize on last week’s discovery of a few empty warheads designed to deliver chemical weapons to demand immediate Security Council action. It understood the council would balk.
The prospects for a U.S. invasion of Iraq remain real, but for the first time the outlook for averting it has grown as a result of a stiffening of attitudes at the United Nations.
Also, polls are telling Mr. Bush that support at home for war drops sharply if he proceeds without U.N. backing.
Suddenly it also seems that the imminent threat from Iraq is not all that imminent – unless, that is, Mr. Hussein unleashes his chemical or biological arsenal in retaliation for a U.S. attack.
Talk also grows of pressures from Arab nations to persuade him to go into exile.
Many say Mr. Bush is so far out on a limb now with his massive mobilization that he can’t stop without losing face. But much more important is preserving international solidarity. If France, as threatened, vetoes any new U.N. war authorization, Mr. Bush will be hard-pressed to go ahead.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, carrying Mr. Bush’s mail the other day at the United Nations, warned that “if the United Nations is going to be relevant, it has to take a firm stand.” There can be no better way for the United Nations to prove its relevancy than to stop the Bush runaway war-making train in its tracks.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun’s Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.