Alfred Hitchcock was fond of McGuffins–meaningless plot devices on which the characters obsess while the real, gruesome story moves on elsewhere. The mother of all McGuffins has to be the CD-ROM that Iraq must hand over by December 8 carrying what UN hands call the “FFD.” That is a “Full and Frank Disclosure” of, as Security Council Resolution 1441 puts it:

all aspects of its programmes to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other delivery systems such as unmanned aerial vehicles and dispersal systems designed for use on aircraft, including any holdings and precise locations of such weapons, components, sub-components, stocks of agents, and related material and equipment, the locations and work of its research, development and production facilities, as well as all other chemical, biological, and nuclear programmes, including any which it claims are for purposes not related to weapon production or material.

Since this breathlessly comprehensive legal prose comes from Washington, it is a test designed for Iraq to fail. But the hopes pinned on it by hard-liners there are unlikely to be realized. December 8 will not be the early Christmas they hoped for.

Hans Blix, head of the UN monitoring commission, or UNMOVIC, has already had to face angry hawks for suggesting that he would not be too upset if Baghdad took a little longer to write the full history of its chemical industry. The United States has been trying to secure a copy of the FFD disk as soon as Baghdad hands it over, but it is meeting resistance from UNMOVIC and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which want to study the material first and present a summary to the Council.

Remembering the spooks that haunted UNSCOM, their predecessor, members of Blix’s staff are genuinely trying to keep their independence. If the US negotiators were rational, they would realize that a finding of material breach by an independent and objective team of inspectors is worth immeasurably more politically and diplomatically than a coerced and contrived one. But instead, UNMOVIC finds that when the United States can’t control, it cavils–and a stream of carping stories is leaked to the press suggesting that the inspectors are at best timid and at worst collusive.

For example, UNMOVIC is due to take delivery of eight helicopters to be used when the serious inspections begin at the end of January; they will compare the FFD with reality. However, Washington insists that regardless of lower bids, the helicopters must come from a US company that had a contract with the UN force on the Iraq-Kuwait border in 1994. At that time the company’s close connections with the CIA and the former Air America caused the Iraqis to refuse its choppers access.

In the Security Council, the abrasive arrogance of Bush Administration hawks has led to increasing irritation. Even the British told other members that they do not consider omissions or distortions in the FFD to be a “material breach” that would automatically trigger a war. All countries except the United States agree that such a breach would require serious obstruction of the inspectors or their disarmament efforts, and Resolution 1441 says such obstructions should be reported first to the Council. Even Iraq’s best friends admit that the threat of war has forced the country’s cooperation.

Similarly, Washington insiders began to beat the war drums right after the resolution, when Iraq took potshots at US planes enforcing the no-fly zones. The rest of the Council, and Kofi Annan himself, pointed out that this was specifically excluded when the terms of the resolution were negotiated, since no one except the United States and Britain accepts that the flights are sanctioned by UN resolutions. In fact, Russian ambassador Sergei Lavrov explained his vote for 1441 by referring to the assurances given by its sponsors that this was the case.

Most Council members still hope the resolution will result in a peaceful solution, and maybe even the end of sanctions, since that is the aim of successful inspection and disarmament. The more cynical ones take the US desire for war as a given; they suspect that Saddam Hussein will eventually provide the excuse. But other members, having signed on for the resolution unanimously, now feel that with it they have a means to stop their real nightmare–a unilateral war by the UN’s strongest member that would rip up the UN Charter and international law.

Germany and Pakistan are among the new members on the Security Council in January, and it may be harder to get their backing for military action because of their domestic politics. So unless Iraq provides an excuse for US hawks to act, the next major flashpoint will not appear until the end of January, and by that time the inspectors will have checked on and under the ground for hidden weapons stocks. In the meantime, the Council members are as relaxed as they can be, sharing a lair with a restive, hungry lion, with only their sweet-talking to keep it from rushing out to dismember a neighbor.