Disarming Iraq: The Search for Weapons of Mass Destruction by Hans Blix. Pub: Bloomsbury, London, 2004. Pp: 285 pp. Pbk: £16.99 / $24.00.
By Nasr Salem
As the US seems to be sinking into more and more difficulties in Iraq, the question of how it became entangled in a latter-day Vietnam-like quagmire becomes more and more important, at least to the West. That the US and Britain couched their arguments to justify the invasion of Iraq in terms of the search for Iraq’s alleged stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) makes the story of the UN’s inspections in Iraq an essential element of the history of the prelude to war.
In Disarming Iraq, Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq between 2000 and 2003, tells the story of his efforts to get to the bottom of Iraq’s programmes of WMD. Blix, an elderly Swedish diplomat with many years’ experience in the UN and its nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was recalled from retirement in January 2000 to head a new international organization set up to search for Iraq’s WMD capabilities. The organisation, the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission for Iraq (UNMOVIC), was established by a Security Council resolution in December 1999. This constituted an implicit recognition on the part of the Council that “there might still be weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, despite the fact that a great deal of disarmament had been accomplished through UN inspections after the end of the Gulf War in 1991” (p. 3).
Blix provides a slow-moving, detailed account of his efforts as he embarked on staffing the commission and training its staff. He also relates various meetings with world leaders, as well as his many travels between various capitals, where he held numerous rounds of talks and discussions with relevant parties on getting the inspectors back to Iraq and the work they needed to carry out there. He provides detailed descriptions of his meetings with a number of world leaders – including US president George W. Bush, British prime minister Tony Blair, French president Jacques Chirac, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan – as well as a crowd of high-ranking US government officials, including secretary of state Colin Powell, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, vice-president Dick Cheney, and deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
The former chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq argues that not enough time was given for inspectors to complete their work. On several occasions he tried to impress on world leaders the importance of giving the inspectors more time. He recalls warning Tony Blair that “it would prove paradoxical and absurd if 250,000 troops were to invade Iraq and find very little” (p. 194). Accordingly, while approving of the removal of Saddam, Blix argues that “a greater price was paid for this action: in the compromised legitimacy of the action, in the damaged credibility of the governments pursuing it, and in the diminished authority of the United Nations” (p. 274).
But in the light of what we now know about the Bush administration’s obsessive determination to launch a military action on Iraq, we must ask whether additional time for inspections could possibly have stopped the clock that was ticking towards war. This also renders his “conclusion … that the armed action that was taken was expected but not irrevocably predetermined” (p. 14) a rather misguided and injudicious conclusion. Such a viewpoint obscures the role of underlying US foreign-policy principles towards Iraq, such as “regime change,” which was adopted by the Clinton administration in the late 1990s. Nor does it take into account the Bush White House’s neo-conservative drive for a ‘reverse domino theory’ of radical transformation of the Middle East. After all, the prevailing neo-conservative thinking in the Bush administration envisaged a ‘liberated’ and ‘democratic’ Iraq as a model that could be copied elsewhere in the region.
On an analytical level, Blix’s argument that more time for inspections could have averted war also ignores the impetus towards military action and armed intervention that military deployments and build-ups tend to create. His overlooking this point is odd, as he himself recognizes, in a rather circuitous way, that the military build-up in the Gulf, despite the failure to turn up any banned weapons in Iraq, created an irreversible momentum for war. He says: “During February 2003, the U.S. military build-up in the Gulf continued and was expected to reach around 200,000 troops by the end of the month. It was evident that the actual use of this force could only be avoided through some spectacular development that assured the U.S. and the world about disarmament in Iraq. The US could not scale down its military presence or withdraw simply because Iraq opened its doors to the inspectors and let them [go] anywhere” (p. 146). Now that the much-trumpeted stockpiles of lethal germs, chemicals and gases have proved to be no more than figments of the sinister imagination of the neo-conservative cabal dominating the US government, Blix’s thesis that the war would have been avoidable if only inspections had been given more time becomes untenable.
It was this obsession with toppling Saddam Hussian on the part of the neo-conservatives dominating the Bush administration that led to an avalanche of flimsy intelligence that exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq and was used to justify military action. Iraqi “[d]efectors appear to have played a very significant role in the U.S. dossier. Mr Rumsfeld, for one, said that things were found by defectors, not by inspectors. Perhaps too much reliance was placed upon them.” Yet America’s intelligence sleights of hand knew no bounds. When the Bush administration officials used “the cautious UN inspection reports”, they tended to “misread them and use them in support of preconceived convictions” (p. 261). Blix, moreover, could not “exclude the possibility that the U.S. had managed to crack our secure fax” (p. 222). Blix also gives the lie to many unsubstantiated claims propagated by people in the Bush administration: the aluminium tubes supposedly intended for making the centrifuges needed to enrich uranium for weapons, the mobile bio-laboratories, the Iraqi drones that the US asserted were designed for offensive military operations rather than reconnaissance, and the forged document that purported to show that Iraq had concluded a contract with the Niger to buy “yellowcake” (natural uranium) , for instance.
Blix notes that the Iraqis’ attitude to the inspections is puzzling. As the clock ticked towards war, Iraq became more and more cooperative with the inspectors on process and procedure. However, Baghdad was reluctant to act with sufficient readiness to demonstrate that it had no WMD. Blix argues that this conduct gave the “impression … that Iraq was trying to hide prohibited weapons.” In his search for factors that explain why Saddam’s regime allowed such an impression to develop, Blix arrives at a host of possible motives and causes. One argument is that the Iraqi regime did not expect “cooperation with the inspectors … to lead to a lifting of sanctions”. In addition, the Iraqis’ pride might have precluded more meaningful Iraqi cooperation. Blix says: “A sense of humiliation might have led the Iraqis to balk at giving the inspectors access in some cases, especially to various sites they associated with the sovereignty of their country” (pp. 264-265).
Security considerations might also have figured high in Iraqi thinking. According to Blix, because it was badly weakened by its defeat in the Gulf war of 1991, the Iraqi government might have thought that it needed to give the impression that it possessed unconventional weapons capabilities, aiming at “inspiring in others the thought that it had weapons of mass destruction and was still dangerous.” Moreover, Baghdad “may have wanted to maintain secrecy about facilities harbouring conventional military forces and weapons. While such facilities were clearly subject to inspection … the close relations which existed up to the end of 1998 between some UNSCOM [UNMOVIC’s predecessor] and the military authorities of countries that were bombing targets in Iraq might have led the regime to obstruct visits to some such sites” (pp. 265-6).
The book ends with some reflections on the role of weapons inspections in counter-proliferation efforts and in securing disarmament. Blix argues for resorting to UN inspections in order to resolve similar crises in the future. He puts forward a simple cost-benefit analysis to support his argument. He notes that “a combined UN and IAEA inspection force of fewer than 200 inspectors costing perhaps $80 million per year was pushed out [of Iraq] and replaced by an invasion force of some 300,000 personnel costing approximately $80 billion per year,” quite apart from the substantial human casualties that continue in Iraq to this day. Needless to say, this observation constitutes an implicit denunciation of the Bush administration’s contempt for multilateralism in world politics.
One cannot but be surprised by Blix’s refusal to express his opinions on events leading up to war. His keenness to stay above the controversy over Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction casts a pall of ambivalence and equivocation over his account. In the end what the readers get is a cold, colourless, wishy-washy and bland narrative. In many places Blix seeks refuge in circular logic and naive arguments. For instance, he says that he personally believed that “Iraq still concealed weapons of mass destruction, but I needed evidence.” Yet he then hastens to add: “Perhaps there were not many such weapons in Iraq after all” (p. 194).
The reader is disappointed by the author’s failure to provide significant new information about the countdown to war. As head of UNMOVIC, Blix had access to a wealth of primary sources and documents, yet he has chosen not to use them. But, despite all its shortcomings, Blix’s chronicle of his career as head of UNMOVIC provides another demonstration of how the US tried to use the UN’s weapons inspection regime in Iraq as a cover for its policy of regime change and invasion. In October 2002, about one month before UNMOVIC forged ahead with its inspections, US vice-president Cheney told Blix that his country was “ready to discredit inspections in favor of disarmament” (p. 86). It is such details that make Disarming Iraq a fascinating tale of how American arrogance, ideological shortsightedness, intrigue, deceit and blatant lies have shaped the US’s march to war and disaster in Iraq.