“No sensible person wants to go to war if war can be avoided.” So said Secretary of State Colin Powell on September 15. Next time he is at the White House, he should take a good look around.

The day after Powell made that remark, Saddam Hussein offered unconditionally to permit UN weapons inspectors back into Iraq, after a four-year hiatus. His move, as skeptics quickly noted, was predictable. It split the UN which had been moving toward supporting–or yielding to–Bush’s get-Iraq demand and gave Arab states and France, Russia and China (three-fifths of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, each with soft-on-Saddam governments) reason to call for slowing down the march to war. Just as predictable was the administration’s response, as George W. Bush and his advisers dismissed the offer as an irrelevant ploy. They seemed irritated their express train to war, which was picking up momentum, had encountered a bad piece of track. Rather than slow down and take a look, they decided, let’s ignore the bump, full speed ahead.

But if no sensible person wants a war that can be avoided, why not call Saddam’s bluff? Bush’s supposed aim has been disarmament in Iraq. The administration has sold “regime change”–that semi-polite term for ousting Saddam with military force–as a means for ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. Powell, in the past, has raised the prospect that an aggressive, intrusive, unfettered, and robust weapons inspection program could achieve this, while Vice President Dick Cheney has said it could not. But even though Bush cited Iraqi repression and human rights violations during his speech last week at the UN, the publicly-stated concern driving administration policy has been Saddam’s development of WMD. After all, is Bush proposing war against other nations that treat citizens brutally and do not allow for religious, political and civil freedom? Say, China, Qatar, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jordan? What makes Saddam different, we’re told, is his development and potential use (which might include sharing) of horrific weaponry.

Inspections address this central point. The Bush administration and its conservative supporters in the punditry, though, have denied this. Testifying before the House armed services committee on September 18, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld–after being interrupted by protesters chanting, “inspections, not war”–said, “The goal isn’t inspections. The goal is disarmament….You can only have inspections when a country is cooperating with you.”

That is not entirely so. Inspections are part of a disarmament campaign, and cooperation is not a black-and-white matter. From 1991 to 1998, UN inspectors faced a tough time in Iraq, for Saddam–big surprise–did not assist them. His government, for example, claimed it had no major biological weapons. Yet the inspectors uncovered such a program. (At the UN, Bush misleadingly attributed this important success to the defection of an Iraqi defector. But the UN inspectors had discovered these bioweapons months before this defection.) The inspectors also learned the Iraqi nuclear weapons program was further along than Saddam’s government had acknowledged. With this information in hand, the inspectors dismantled Iraq’s capacity to enrich uranium–a crucial step in bomb-making.

The right sort of inspections can lead to disarmament and can inhibit WMD development. During the seven years UN inspectors played cat-and-mouse with Saddam, his regime did not apparently make great strides on the WMD front. Not that Saddam may not have tried. But it’s been four years since inspections ended, and none of the go-to-war-now crowd is today arguing Saddam possesses nuclear weapons. If Iraq was months away from a nuclear bomb at the end of the Gulf War in 1991–as the Bush administration and others claim (perhaps rightfully)–then it is clear that those seven years of inspections and dismantlement set him back, for there is no evidence that in the past four years Saddam has achieved what he was once months away from achieving.

Inspections without a cooperating regime did make a difference. As Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted, “In their first five years, the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM), which was responsible for inspecting and disarming Iraq’s chemical, biological, and missile materials and capacities, and the [International Atomic Energy Agency] Iraq Action Team, which did the same for Iraq’s nuclear ones, achieved substantial successes. With sufficient human and technological resources, time, and political support, inspections can reduce Iraq’s WMD threat, if not to zero, to a negligible level.” She defines inspections as “a resumed discovery and disarmament phase and intrusive, ongoing monitoring and verification extending to dual-use facilities and the activities of key individuals.” By claiming the choice is between inspections and disarmament, Rumsfeld is being disingenuous. Inspections are aimed directly at disarmament. Regime change may be. But one targets a sometimes hard-to-find bull’s eye, while the other seeks to blow up the entire firing range in order to get that red circle.

Why not try the first course, before resorting to blasting away? The White House and the UN should call Saddam’s bluff. Send in the inspectors ASAP and test the unconditionality of the offer. It may take a while–months to a year–to scope out Iraq’s WMD programs, but it should not take long to determine if Iraq is serious about giving the inspectors free run.

This is the approach backed by Richard Butler, former chief UN weapons inspector. One of the most passionate advocates of Iraqi disarmament, Butler has been a human-rights-oriented hawk on Iraq. During the summer, he appeared before the Senate foreign relations committee and was somewhat supportive of military action against Saddam. After Iraq said it would permit the return of inspectors, Butler remarked, “We don’t have to be grateful for what Iraq has done. They are outlaws, they are outside the law; we have to assess carefully a decision by them to come back under the law and this seems to be a step in the right direction….Saying that the inspectors can come back to Iraq without condition is good–that’s the first step. But what we really need to see is that inspectors are allowed to do their work when they get there, without conditions; in other words, unfettered access to any place or person that they need in order to do their job, and we won’t know that until they get there.”

Butler, despite his deep skepticism toward Saddam, views this as an opportunity, not an irritation. The Bush clan ought to do the same. But Team Bush–sometimes Powell, too–seem eager to shoot down any other options but regime-change war. (Other war-lite options include inspections backed by force, as the Carnegie Endowment has proposed, or strikes against WMD sites.) There may be risks involved in permitting Iraq to weasel its way through a round of inspection follies. Perhaps Saddam will gain more time to pursue what the administration fears he is pursuing. But that risk has to be considered along side the risks of military action–especially military action that could end up being mostly unilateral.

The Bush administration doesn’t seem much interested in avoiding full-scale conflict. It would rather have a blank-check authorization from Congress than an inspection regimen in place. The White House is bent on regime change in and of itself. Sure, a military attack designed to achieve de-Saddamization might impede Iraq’s WMD programs. But it might have many other consequences as well. Clearly, the goal is war, not disarmament. Secretary Powell, call your office.