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Iraq: What the Butler Saw | The Nation

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Iraq: What the Butler Saw

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Security Council decisions are political acts--with legal force. Butler was charged with executing a task whose political time had come and gone. To a large extent it was only the British and US veto power that kept the sanctions and the inspection regime in place. There was and is no will in the Security Council to enforce them.

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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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Butler professes himself to be a student of Mahatma Gandhi. It would perhaps have been better if he had studied the Middle East more. One puzzlingly elementary blooper is his throwaway remark that Iraqis grow their mustaches in emulation of their leader. It suggests a lack of acquaintanceship with Arab males, who long before and far away from Saddam Hussein thus adorned their upper lips.

In The Greatest Threat, Butler unintentionally supports the allegations that he had difficulty understanding the Arab feelings on which Saddam Hussein was prepared to play. The Syrians wanted to include their right to retake the Golan Heights in the Declaration for the Fiftieth Anniversary of the United Nations. It may have been an injudicious context for the statement. However, Butler sarcastically reports the Arab demand that this be recognized as "fair" and "just" as self-evidently absurd. Yet if the Israelis could occupy and annex the Golan Heights in the teeth of international law, there is certainly nothing so unreasonable about the Arab position in legal terms, although its military practicability is another question.

Throughout the ten years since the Gulf War, even Arabs with little time for Baghdad have wondered why Israel can have nuclear weapons, be able to devastate its neighbors and annex other people's territory with impunity while the Iraqi people suffer under sanctions. It is a question that has only political, not moral, answers. Deus Vult, "God wills," was the Crusaders' war cry. America Vult is the modern equivalent. The sad truth is that when the United States does not actively will it, there is no international law unless the parties to a conflict agree; it is not enough to say, "It's the law." In the modern world, if the United States doesn't want to do something, the guilty go unpunished.

However, Butler never seemed to realize that he was putting truth in the rumors that the Iraqis and their friends were spreading about him. For Butler to get the job in the first place, and to keep it, Madeleine Albright had to browbeat a reluctant Australian government into paying his salary. Canberra blamed him for its defeat in a bid to join the Security Council, and it actively disliked his Australian Labour Party sympathies. As Butler records, they insisted that his salary go into a trust fund rather than be paid directly to him. Whatever his disagreements in the past with Washington, he was beholden to it once he took the assignment to head UNSCOM.

"We had some close relationships with various governments while Rolf Ekeus was carrying out his mission. But he walked the tightrope successfully--Ekeus could say no to the United States; Richard Butler couldn't," Butler's former subordinate Scott Ritter told me in a personal interview. "Butler was in a situation where it was tempting to become overreliant on the United States. When he turned to the Security Council, it was fractured. It was unable to speak with one voice about Iraq, and half was hostile. He turned to the SG [Secretary General] and found him and his office openly hostile to him--as were the Iraqis. The ones that supported him were the United States and Britain. Butler did not have the fortitude to insist that his friends behave in a proper manner." According to Ritter and others, that went as far as allowing US agencies to use UNSCOM as cover for their operations, which included attempts at spying.

On the other hand, when the Iraqis tried to browbeat him into going along with their dissimulation, he reacted pugnaciously. The Baathists are thugs and they are used to getting away with their bullying. In his case they miscalculated, even if his reaction in the end gave ammunition to his enemies.

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