Saddam's Dilemma - How
To Prove A Negative

By Terrell E. Arnold

The latest threat from the Bush administration, articulated by the President himself, is that by Sunday, December 8, Saddam must produce 'credible' proof that he has no weapons of mass destruction or face likely US attack. With that, Saddam Hussein faces probably the toughest challenge of his long and bloody career: How to prove that he has not done something. The only thing he has going for him may be the conventional wisdom that proving a negative is impossible. But the choice confronting Saddam is tough, because he faces a US President who chooses to put aside the norms of American justice and apply the Code Napoleon.

Under the Napoleonic Code, brought to Louisiana by the French, Bush does not have to prove Saddam is guilty. Saddam has to prove himself innocent, and he has to do that in a court that is predisposed not to believe anything he says. The Bush test is that the proof must be 'credible' to him. In short, the proof of nothing must meet a subjective standard of evidence that is likely to be revealed only after the fact by the President either backing off or, possibly, beginning the war without saying anything.

One can assume that Saddam Hussein, being a man of proven shrewdness, will give this his best shot. His life may depend upon it. Openness and candor may not be his strongest suits. But survival is. His ability to come out of the Gulf War, not only in one piece but with many of his capabilities intact or restorable, looked like a remarkable piece of footwork. However, his ability to do that depended in large part on the fact that the Gulf War Coalition members lacked common goals, had no agreed game plan, and were short of reliable intelligence. Moreover, Coalition members mostly sought post war futures that did not require Saddamâs defeat or departure from Iraq. If he can just figure out how to deal with the United States, Saddamâs present situation is not radically different.

While it may not look that way from Pennsylvania Avenue, Saddam has played his side of the game very well. That doesn't mean he has fessed up as repeatedly asked. It means he patiently has used a mix of UN procedure, international misgivings and home grown devices to stay out of the crosshairs. Most governments do not see any need for a war with him, and he merely has had to watch as those governments nudged the issue into UN channels where it played out basically in line with his needs. Bush did most of the work by threatening a pre-emptive strike and regime change, both of which disturbed even people who avidly dislike Saddam. In the meantime, Saddam did not threaten. Most of the bluster came from his subordinates. He timed his response to UN Resolution 1441 skillfully to maximize US official bluster, which further frayed the nerves of other governments. His production of a 60-plus page reply to the UN in Arabic was mostly for show, because the only word that mattered was 'yes'.

Saddam is getting a fair amount of help from others to defer personal proof of the negative. Most of the world is skeptical of this whole venture, and the order of proof is not rigorous for most. The UN clearly wants to see the inspection process reinitiated by Resolution 1441 played out in a respectable manner. Governments opposed to war with Iraq, including France, Germany and Russia, favor that outcome. For that to occur, the UN inspection teams must do their work in an orderly and methodical manner, because questionable procedure will backfire. To flit about trying to surprise the Iraqis, as suggested by the White House, is not only irritating to Iraqis, it risks hasty and sloppy work that will not pass muster. White House impatience aside, the best result for all parties is a thorough and unchallengeable inspection, whatever it uncovers. That process takes time. So far, stretching things out has served Saddam well, and it may have served Bush better than he knows.

At this point, however, Saddam's options for proving the negative are clearly defined. He has been a crafty cat to herd, but he did agree to the conditions of Resolution 1441, and that limits his choices. The first test was cooperating with the inspectors, and there have been no problems so far. The second real test will come December 8, when he is required under the resolution to declare whatever is there in the way of programs, materials or products for weapons of mass destruction. He said Tuesday that he will report on December 7. That implies he is confident that the inspectors will find nothing because there was never anything there or because he has destroyed, hidden, sold or given away everything incriminating. If that proves to be the case, and the UN inspection teams are unable to contradict him with solid evidence to the contrary, then the game is over. So far as most people are concerned, the negative will have been proven.

What constitutes adequate evidence to start a war? That is a tricky question. In the past few days, inspectors found a few artillery shells containing a chemical agent. They had inspected these shells in their present location in 1998, but had not destroyed them. Do they count now toward a make war bill of particulars? The UN resolution does not read that way. In principle, if Saddam has materials, capabilities weapons or delivery systems that he accurately and completely declares on Saturday, he has complied with the resolution. He would, of course, have to permit the declared items to be taken and destroyed. If he does not make such a declaration, he must present proof of the negative.

Saddam may be confident that the inspectors will prove a sufficient negative, or that he has nothing to declare that is worth going to war, but his worst nightmare has to be that someone or some group that hates him will plant a false flag piece of evidence. As US forces learned in the Gulf War, Iraq has a large and empty desert in which it is easy to hide things. At least a few governments and a number of ethnic or tribal groups might plant evidence.

A plant of false evidence would play to the Bush team, because it is leaning forward so far that the team might not look closely enough at the evidence to discover the falsehood. Saddamâs deficiencies are well known and not in dispute, but any evidence must be carefully gathered and validated to avoid any possibility of such trickery. This reinforces the need for a careful and complete inspection. It would be grim irony to fight a war that is not needed against an enemy who is not guilty.
The writer is a retired senior foreign service officer of the United States Department of State.


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