Under the banner of the UN
Abdel Raouf El-Reedy is captivated by Hans Blix's recently published book -- an indispensable case study on the intricacies of international crises and the pressures that can be brought to bear on international civil servants
Disarming Iraq: the Search for Weapons of Mass Destruction, Hans Blix, London: Bloomsbury, 2004. pp285
Hans Blix and his wife Eva were on a tour of Antarctica when the Swedish foreign minister contacted him to inform him that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan wanted him to head the newly formed UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) for Iraq. Here began the epic journey that took Blix from the polar tundra to the eye of the global storm that ended with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In Disarming Iraq: the Search for Weapons of Mass Destruction, Blix recounts his role in these dramatic events, which crowned his distinguished career.
I FIRST MET HANS Blix in New York in 1958 at a luncheon for young diplomats. Hans, who had graduated from Columbia University several years before I had, was then working for the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and I had just set out on my career with the Egyptian delegation at UN headquarters. We became better acquainted when we represented our respective countries on the UN General Assembly's Legal Committee, and even more so in 1964, when we were both on the committee for the elaboration of the principles concerning friendly relations among states in accordance with UN Charter. Close relationships between the members of this committee developed, and it eventually formulated an important declaration amplifying the principles of international law enshrined in the UN Charter that was adopted by the UN General Assembly on its 25th anniversary in 1970.
In the late 1970s, Blix was appointed Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. Deeply concerned by the plight of the Third World and sympathetic with the sentiments of Third World peoples, Blix selected a number of Egyptians to work with him. Among these were Ambassador Mohammed Shaker and Dr Mohamed El- Baradei. The latter succeeded Blix as Director-General of the IAEA, and the two became familiar faces on television screens during the run-up to last year's Iraq war.
DURING THE 1980s Iraq and the US had been close allies, a relationship which Saddam capitalised upon in building his Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programme. The West at that time not only turned a blind eye to Baghdad's armaments activities, but also helped supply it with arms and equipment. Saddam, after all, was fighting the Islamic revolution in Iran. The IAEA had little knowledge of WMD buildup in Iraq, and western governments were not pressuring it to probe the situation, as they are doing today with regard to Iran.
The end of the Iraq-Iran war, topped by Saddam's madcap invasion of Kuwait, brought the Washington-Baghdad honeymoon to an abrupt end. US-led coalition forces liberated Kuwait, and the Security Council passed a resolution imposing sanctions on Iraq, exacting reparations for war victims and subjecting Iraq to a meticulous arms inspection process. Eventually, Iraq succeeded in capitalising on rifts in the coalition to circumvent the sanctions, and in 1998 Saddam, claiming that the arms inspectors were spies, expelled the UNISCOM team from Iraq, bringing the country into a collision course with the Security Council. As the crisis escalated, the Security Council created a new monitoring body with the acronym UNMOVIC.
When Hans Blix became head of UNMOVIC on 1 March 2000, Baghdad was testing some of its recently recovered political clout, and it refused to cooperate with the monitoring body unless sanctions were lifted. Blix and the members of the team he had formed were thus left at a loose end in their office on the 31st floor of the UN building in New York. In Disarming Iraq, Blix relates how he took advantage of this period to enjoy the exhilarating atmosphere of New York, visiting its many museums, theatres and concert halls. However, this pleasant lull came to an abrupt end with the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001 and Bush's subsequent declaration of the war against terrorism.
The neoconservatives in the Bush administration had just been presented with a chance to accomplish one of their main goals: to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, preparatory to altering the face of the Middle East. The war on Afghanistan had been just a prelude to this, and once it had been more or less settled the White House needed a pretext to invade Iraq. As Paul Wolfowitz later admitted, Iraq's weapons of mass destruction furnished the perfect rationale for war.
BEFORE 11 SEPTEMBER, Baghdad had refused to cooperate with Blix, the leadership of the Baath believing "that they had the upper hand and could get some kind of package deal that would, among other things, end the sanctions." On 27 February 2001, in a statement typical of the bravado coming out of Baghdad at the time, the then Iraqi foreign minister Mohammed Said Al-Sahaf described UNMOVIC as a "non- entity" at a press conference. And Blix? "He is a 'detail' in the non-entity," Al-Sahaf said. In his typical nonchalant manner Blix says in his book that "journalists turned to me for comment, and I said I thought that the Iraqis had given me a promotion, as they had earlier only called me a spy."
However, a year later in March 2002 the Iraqi delegation to the UN, now headed by the new foreign minister Naji Sabri -- "more affable than his loud and barely civil predecessor" according to Blix -- showed more flexibility, accepting for the first time that Blix attend Iraqi meetings with Kofi Annan. Of the first such meeting Blix says that "Kofi Annan gave me the opportunity to explain how we had organized UNMOVIC and how we looked upon our task. I stressed that credible inspections should be in the interest of both Iraq and the UN... I did not have the impression of a lack of sincerity [on the part of the Iraqis], rather of people living in another world of thinking."
Following the promulgation of Security Council resolution 1441 on 8 November 2002 and the escalation of the US military buildup in the Gulf, Baghdad had finally realised that the threat was in earnest and that the only way to avert war was to accept the resolution, described by Blix as "a draconian resolution that would not have been accepted by any state that was not under direct threat of armed attack".
On 17 November 2002 Blix arrived in Baghdad, and talks between him and his Iraqi opposite number, General Amr Al- Sa'adi, opened the following day. "Al-Sa'adi opened our talks by saying, a little cheekily, that they had hoped we would come a month earlier, when Iraq had first accepted the inspections. I responded that we would have liked to have come many months earlier. After these light jabs we got down to discussing how we should organise our cooperation under the resolutions which guided them and us," Blix writes.
At that time US designs were still being held in check by a segment of international opinion that felt that military action should only be undertaken as a last resort, and that it should be pursued in accordance with a Security Council mandate in the event that the arms inspectors were obstructed from completing their mission. Ultimately, as we know, the US launched its offensive without a mandate and in spite of the long, arduous and courageous efforts of both Blix and El-Baradei.
FOLLOWING THE WAR, Blix returned to the tranquility of his home in Sweden and started to write this account of the buildup to the war. Disarming Iraq appeared at about the same time as other important works on the subject, notably those by former US Coordinator for Security Infrastructure Protection and Counter-terrorism Richard Clarke, and former US Secretary of Treasury Paul O'Neil. It supports Clarke's contention that well before 11 September 2001, the coterie of neoconservatives that came to power with Bush in January 2001 were set on propelling the US into a war against Iraq. Given this overriding objective, they had no interest in allowing UN weapons inspectors sufficient time to complete their mission, a conviction that Blix reiterates on several occasions in his book.
Certainly, the White House hawks did everything in their power to capitalise on the post-11 September panic, rallying American public opinion behind an aggressive military policy. It so happened that I was invited to attend a conference in Washington several weeks after 11 September, and I returned to Egypt convinced that Iraq would be the US's next target after Afghanistan. At the time, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was urging wars not only to counter terrorism, but also to overturn governments, or wars "ending states" as he put it. If he and the other White House hawks had had their way, the US would not have even made the pretense of seeking a UN mandate for war. It was only in deference to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US Secretary of State Collin Powell that they conceded to established UN principles and procedures: a Security Council resolution, after all, would give the war a mantle of international legitimacy.
Here, the reports and statements made by Blix and El- Baradei come into play. Of central concern was the fact that there was documented evidence that prior to 1991 Iraq had possessed sufficient quantities of the necessary substances to manufacture biological and chemical weapons. Although Baghdad claimed that it had destroyed these substances along with its WMD in that year, it could furnish no records or other documentation that it had in fact done so. Washington and Blix clashed over this issue in particular.
The Americans held that as long as Iraq could not supply proof there remained the suspicion that it had produced and currently possessed the banned weapons. Blix did not explicitly counter by saying that the burden of proof fell upon the US; however, he did appeal for more time to conduct the necessary investigations, arguing that the lack of documentation required from Iraq did not necessarily imply that the substances in question had been used to manufacture WMD, or that Iraq possessed such weapons.
Had Blix's reasoning held the day, of course, there would have been no war, since, as has been amply demonstrated in the aftermath of the war, Iraq did not possess the alleged WMD. Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder what might have happened had Blix and al-Baradei caved in under the enormous pressure put on them to confirm the American allegations.
Disarming Iraq also relates the substance of Blix's many meetings with Bush, Blair, Cheney, Powell, Rice and others prior to the crucial Security Council meeting of 7 March 2003. Baghdad was now cooperating fully with the inspection teams, while the US was stepping up its campaign for a resolution sanctioning military action. Blix and El-Baradei were acutely aware of the extent to which the question of war and peace rested on their shoulders, and they had scrupulously to weigh every word they uttered in order that nothing they said could be seized upon by the American hawks to push through their resolution.
El-Baradei was in a position to make it clear to the Security Council that after three months of scrupulous inspections his agency could find nothing to indicate that Iraq had reconstructed its nuclear programme, but that it would take several more months to ascertain that the country was entirely free of nuclear weapons. For Blix, who was in charge of the search for biological and chemical weapons, the situation was more complex in the light of Iraqi inability to show that all the substances that could have been used to make such weapons had in fact been destroyed. However, he stressed to the Security Council that it would take only months -- not years -- to establish that Iraq did not possess such weapons, and he urged against rushing into war before his inspection teams had finished their work.
Both arguments proved to no avail. Washington had already made up its mind to go to war, and it was not about to indulge the weapons inspectors' pleas for time with troops already amassed in the desert and the scorching heat of summer just around the corner.
BLIX REFUTES MANY OF the claims the Americans made in their attempts to persuade the Security Council and world public opinion that Iraq possessed WMD. The most notorious claim was voiced by the US president himself in his State of the Union address, in which Bush said that the British had learned that Iraq had obtained large quantities of raw uranium -- yellowcake -- from Niger. El-Baradei then announced that the papers relating to this alleged deal that had fallen into the hands of British intelligence were forgeries. "This was, if I might use the expression, a blockbuster. In its uncontrolled eagerness to nail Iraq, the US administration had allowed its president to use the yellowcake contracts despite its own knowledge that this was a questionable piece of information," Blix writes in one of the most compelling chapters of the book, chapter 9, or Deadlock.
The full story of US and British bungling, or the extent to which their information was misconstrued, may never be known. However, even Powell several months after the war confessed that much of what he had said in the 5 February 2003 Security Council speech had been "inaccurate." That was the famous session during which CIA director George Tennet sat right behind Powell as he delivered his speech.
Blix offers a fascinating account of the conflict between Security Council members over the weapons inspections issue. It is difficult to imagine a time when opinion had been so sharply divided, with one camp -- the US, Britain and Spain -- pushing for war before the inspectors had completed their work, and the other camp -- championed by Germany, France and Russia -- demanding that the inspectors be given the necessary time to fulfill their mission before considering any recourse to war.
In addition, those who still believe that the rules and principles of international legitimacy have a place in today's world should take heart from the fact that the US, in spite of its might, proved unable to twist the arms of Mexico and Chile, which are in its orbit, and of other small nations such as Angola and Cameroon into voting for the Security Council resolution it sponsored. The road is not always paved with roses for those who tread heavily and carry a big stick, a lesson that the US is, or should be, learning today as it finds itself compelled to turn to the UN -- an institution which the neoconservatives in the Bush administration contemptuously refer to as a "debating society" -- to bail it out of its predicament in Iraq.
Equally enlightening is Blix's treatment of Iraq's dealings with the inspection organizations themselves, from UNISCOM to UNMOVIC. Blix readily admits that Iraq only began to cooperate with his organisation when faced with foreign forces on its doorstep and with the ultimatum, made explicit by Security Council resolution 1441, that either it cooperate with the inspections teams or face "serious consequences" -- "a euphemism for armed action," Blix explains. Yet, once Iraq had committed itself to cooperating it demonstrated a willingness to accept virtually every suggestion Blix or El-Baradei came up with. Indeed, Baghdad even agreed to destroy its Al- Samoud 2 missiles, setting the historical precedent of a country voluntarily eliminating its most important weapons at a time when enemy forces were crouching on its doorstep.
One question that continued to baffle Blix long after he had ascertained that Iraq had no WMD was why Baghdad continued to feed suspicions that it did possess them. If he had nothing to hide, why did Saddam refuse to cooperate with the inspections teams for so many years and only cave in when it was too late? Blix can only hypothesize. One reason, he suggests, is that Saddam had no strong motive to cooperate with the UN inspectors; there was no guarantee, for example, that his cooperation would lead to the lifting of sanctions. Another possibility, which I personally find compelling, is that Saddam's obstructiveness was very much in keeping with the mentality of a man who had become a byword for adventurism since his invasion of Iran in 1980.
It may well be that Saddam's hubris and vainglory led him to take the dreadful gamble of giving the impression that he possessed WMD when in fact he did not, perhaps thinking that this would be sufficient to deter an invasion. Indeed, on one occasion before Iraq agreed to cooperate with the weapons inspectors, Tariq Aziz appeared on television and said that "it is absurd that Iraq should relinquish its WMD at a time when it may be subjected to a foreign invasion." Blix compares such statements to "someone who puts up a sign warning BEWARE OF DOG without having a dog."
IT IS EVIDENT from Blix's book that he was personally determined to avert war if he could, and to achieve this end he pursued a two- pronged course of action. On the one hand, he put pressure on Iraq to cooperate further with the inspections teams, telling the Iraqis that the hands of the clock were rapidly approaching midnight. On the other hand, he took excessive pains to point out to the Americans and the British that their "intelligence" was more often than not fraudulent, unsubstantiated or inaccurate. Nor was he reluctant to drive this point home inside the Security Council, as he continued to press for the need to allow weapons inspectors to complete their tasks now that Iraq was cooperating fully.
Not surprisingly, Blix's tactics incurred the wrath of the White House warmongers who began to rail against him in the press, and, even face to face, as occurred at one of the meetings between him and US Assistant Secretary for Non-proliferation, John Wolf.
On 24 February 2003, and during a meeting of UNMOVIC's College of Commissioners, Wolf, a member of the College, had accused Blix and his team of conducting irrelevant work. Blix says "The disdain shocked and surprised the other members of the College. I felt indignant and I did not hide it. We had worked hard and long on a line that had had the full approval of the Council, including the US government. Now that government seemed to abandon the line altogether. OK, but was it fair to combine this abandonment with criticism of our work for irrelevance and inadequacy."
Wolf, as Blix explains, supplemented his oral attack with a letter. Of that letter Blix says: "As I went through his formulations I understood them to say, The witches exist; you are appointed to deal with these witches; testing whether there are witches is only a dilution of the witch hunt."
However, Blix went to even greater lengths to avert war. In his book he reveals that when he learned the Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa was planning to go to Baghdad to meet Saddam, he met with Moussa in the hope of passing a message to Saddam personally. This meeting took place at the UN headquarters less than two weeks before the war, and Blix wanted to prevail upon Saddam to do something dramatic to avert it. His recommendation was that Saddam issue a public declaration that he would give the inspections teams unrestricted access to all sites and the freedom to interview all Iraqi citizens, and then issue an invitation to Blix and El- Baradei to come to Baghdad to receive assurances to this effect. Unfortunately, shortly after Blix and Moussa had agreed on the substance of this message, Blix learned that the Arab League mission had been cancelled.
FINALLY, BLIX'S ACCOUNT is unquestionably an invaluable historical document. Students of international relations and international law in particular will find Disarming Iraq an indispensable case study on the intricacies of international crises and the pressures that can be brought to bear on international civil servants. Especially edifying is the model of integrity that Blix sets for any occupant of a crucial position of responsibility, any taint upon the credibility of which would wreak disastrous consequences for the values his organisation -- the UN -- represents.
Indeed, as I was reading Blix's book I was reminded of another courageous individual, also a Swede, Dag Hammarskjold. As Secretary-General of the UN, Hammarskjold stood up against the tripartite invasion of Egypt waged by Britain, France and Israel in 1956. Various means were employed to distort the truth and mislead international public opinion at that time too, but there was no disguising the fact that the British, French and Israeli actions constituted illegal acts of aggression. Hammarskjold's threat to resign was instrumental both in compelling the invading forces to withdraw and in re- imposing the authority of the UN. Although he died five years after these events, Hammarskjold's name will be forever associated with the defense of the values and principles enshrined in the UN Charter.
Blix has similarly carried that banner forward. If he failed to halt the wheels of war, he nevertheless helped to safeguard the integrity of the UN and prove to the world that there are still honest men out there, ready and able to champion universally cherished values and principles in the face of the most formidable forces and under the direst circumstances.