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Iraq: What the Butler Saw | The Nation

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Iraq: What the Butler Saw

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At the beginning of September, Hans Blix, head of UNMOVIC, the latest UN commission for verifying Iraqi disarmament, poised to report his new team's readiness to go into Iraq. He is mild and diplomatic. His team is multinational, directly employed by the UN, and Anglo-Saxon lite compared with that of his predecessor, Richard Butler. It is almost certain that the Iraqis will refuse them entry, just as Butler and the UN Special Commission on Iraqi disarmament (UNSCOM) were thrown out in 1998.

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Ian Williams
Ian Williams is The Nation's UN correspondent. In addition to his work for the magazine, he frequently comments on...

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Shooting the messenger is an old, established diplomatic custom, of course, and not just in the Middle East. Butler, the Australian diplomat who headed UNSCOM, found himself generally vilified, including by some who would be quite happy to shake hands with Saddam Hussein himself. The Iraqis would have given anyone in Butler's job a hard time, but many of his former colleagues think he went out of his way to give them an incentive.

Lest anyone think that Butler's rebarbative personality was the sole cause of Iraqi intransigence, it is worth remembering that it was under his predecessor, Rolf Ekeus, that UNSCOM discovered Iraq's concealed nuclear program, and that Saddam Hussein's defecting son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, revealed the horrifying details of massive and concealed Iraqi production of anthrax, botulin and other unsavory--and illegal--weapons materials. Indeed, just before Ekeus retired, an Iraqi had wrestled with the pilot of a UN aircraft to prevent an overflight spotting of the removal of materials from a site about to be inspected.

As Butler is at pains to remind us in The Greatest Threat, he was an unlikely imperialist cowboy. A strong supporter of the Australian Labour Party, with a long and successful record in disarmament, he was originally as skeptical of Washington as one would expect, given the US record on the subject. Indeed, he reveals that at one point the Reagan Administration demanded that he be dropped as the Australian disarmament ambassador. And his Australian republicanism did not make him automatically deferential to a British Conservative government.

As he demonstrates, Butler's record showed that he could indeed be both diplomatic and effective. He helped broker a successful extension of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and, faced with Indian intransigence over the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban, he plotted and carried out an end run by moving the draft resolution from conference, where it needed unanimity, to the General Assembly, where it was adopted by an overwhelming majority. Needless to say, the United States has yet to ratify the treaty, even as it has urged it on others, like India. That incident should have given Butler pause about his new allies; instead, Madeleine Albright became his best friend.

In some ways, it is strange that someone who achieved so much for the cause of disarmament should have become such a hated figure on the left. As Butler so often points out, neither the imposition nor the maintenance of sanctions against Iraq was his decision. When he reported that the Iraqi regime was lying and dissimulating about its weapons programs, he was almost certainly right, and his predecessor had said the same.

In the end the real villain, in both absolute and moral terms, is the West's former protégé Saddam Hussein. But you could say that by tacit connivance with Washington's moral and political ambiguities, Richard Butler became part of a plot to frame a guilty dictator. One problem with the Iraq issue is that, while there is one very clear villain, there are also few heroes or saints, and unless professional martyrdom is an automatic qualification for canonization, Butler is not among the saints.

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