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Iraq: What the Butler Saw | The Nation

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Iraq: What the Butler Saw

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I interviewed Butler the day before he took up his new appointment, and I was puzzled at his naïveté about the complexities of the Middle East and the nature of the Iraqi regime. Two weeks later I met him after his first visit to Baghdad, and he was clearly appalled. "Bloodthirsty bastards," was one phrase he used. Of course he was right, if somewhat undiplomatic.

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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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Making enemies of the Iraqis is easy. Butler made enemies of allies as well. He never seemed entirely comfortable with his colleagues, perhaps because as a prisoner of the Anglo-Saxon class system, even in its Australian version, working-class origins are held against you. His reaction was truculence and know-it-all certitude, smacking of arrogance, which comes across clearly in this book--it often came across in press conferences when he was asked a question he thought was unsuitable.

He does not dwell on the defeat of Australia in its bid for a Security Council seat, but his personality was certainly one of the main reasons. It is a secret ballot, and many ambassadors whom he had pissed off during his tenure got some satisfaction back. An overconfident Butler had even scheduled a victory press conference before news of the defeat came through.

He did not know it all, though. For example, in the Security Council meeting that passed Resolution 1284, setting up the successor to UNSCOM, the French did not abstain, as he predicted. To the consternation of the British president of the Council, what was looking more and more like the representative of Elf-Aquitaine just did not vote!

In fact, the resolution represented something of a triumph for the British, since they had removed one of the handicaps that Butler and Ekeus had had to labor under. They had finally persuaded the United States to offer light at the end of the tunnel: If Iraq complied with disarmament, then Washington would not veto the lifting of sanctions. Butler regards the resolution as a climb-down by the UN, when in fact it represented a return to diplomatic reality by the United States.

Indeed, in his conclusions Butler agrees that the best favor the United States could do for nuclear disarmament is to persuade Israel to accede to the various disarmament treaties. Similarly, he has now concluded that sanctions do not work in enforcing Iraqi compliance. It would have been better for Butler to have reached these conclusions earlier, or at least to have publicized them, since it would have helped him disarm some of the criticisms hurled at him.

The sad thing is that Butler's main thesis is also true, even discounting the apocalyptic visions of chemical/biological weapons in Grand Central Station with which he enlivens his account. Short of Saddam's death, which looks a long way off--or massive military intervention, which looks even further off--Baghdad almost certainly will get away with its defiance, which will indeed be a major blow to the international treaties against nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, which have been a major step forward for humanity in the past few decades.

Butler offers an interesting suggestion for future disarmament, albeit one even more unpalatable to the United States than to the other permanent members of the Security Council: He suggests that the permanent members agree not to use their veto in any case involving the violation of the disarmament treaties whenever the Council discusses their enforcement against an offender. Catch Clinton even trying to push that one past Jesse Helms! However, the suggestion shows the complexity of Butler, and it should help redeem his demonized reputation, as he doubtless intended.

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