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Iraq: What the Butler Saw | The Nation

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Iraq: What the Butler Saw

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On the one hand, we have Saddam Hussein, a storybook villain who, in between public hangings of the domestic opposition, waged genocidal wars against the Kurdish people of his country, using chemical weapons that were banned by a convention to which his country was a signatory.

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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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He also waged a long, bloody and aggressive war against Iran, in the course of which he launched missiles indiscriminately against Iranian cities. Facing defeat in that war, he called it off, with nothing to show for his efforts except a huge butcher's bill and massive debts. To pay the latter, he invaded Kuwait, and instead of installing a sympathetic regime, he annexed it.

Now, since the foundation of the UN, many armies have crossed borders and adjusted governments to their satisfaction--Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Grenada and Panama are some examples that spring to mind--but it took Saddam Hussein to break the one bedrock rule of the UN Charter by annexing a neighbor. The only disagreement in the UN was whether armed force would be necessary to get him out, or whether diplomacy and sanctions could do it.

Under international law, there was an obligation on all UN members to get him out. Fortunately for the Kuwaitis, there was also sufficient self-interest among the major powers to enforce the law. The West had been quite prepared to see Saddam Hussein fight Iran, but it did not want him moving forward to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to take over a larger proportion of the world's energy supplies. (Neither Butler nor his predecessor ever released UNSCOM's findings on Western suppliers for Iraq's gruesome war effort.)

When the Gulf War ended, with a diplomatic delicacy for which they are rarely given credit, President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker did not go on to Baghdad and sort out Saddam Hussein: The UN mandate was only to liberate Kuwait, and the ever-fragile coalition could not go farther. (Incidentally, but importantly, the main reason for the fragility of the coalition in the Arab world was the support the United States gave to Israel, which had, of course, also occupied and annexed land it had taken militarily.) When the "mother of all resolutions," 687, was passed--and accepted by the Iraqis--it continued sanctions until Iraq chose to comply with its provisions, which included a massive UN-supervised disarmament effort.

The resolution was a cease-fire agreement inflicted on a defeated party, which probably couldn't believe its luck that it had not been totally occupied. Baghdad immediately began reneging on all the details of the agreement.

Hard times for UNSCOM, Ekeus and consequently Butler came with the election of Bill Clinton, after which the United States did not fully deliver. While Clinton eventually started bombing, Baghdad correctly deduced that any action on its part short of invading a neighbor would not invoke ground troops. At the same time, US inefficacy was compounded by diplomatic ineptitude. When Madeleine Albright and others declared variously that the sanctions would remain in force until the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and that the deaths of Iraqi children that they caused were justifiable for that cause, the United States forfeited the moral high ground to Russia, China and France, whose motives for reconciliation with Baghdad were sordidly self-interested.

Major oil companies from those countries were granted large exploration contracts in Iraq after their governments weighed in on Baghdad's side on the Security Council. The cash-strapped Russians make no secret of their desire to get Iraq trading and repaying the huge Soviet-era debts for weapons supplies. As Butler points out, when the vote on setting up UNMOVIC approached, the Iraqi press, with a typical lack of subtlety, warned that the contracts depended on the vote.

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