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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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