Before he left New York, Hans Blix had a poster on his apartment wall from the big antiwar demonstration in New York City a year ago on the eve of the attack on Iraq. “Blix Not Bombs,” it proclaims. Blix, the former head of UNMOVIC, the United Nations arms-inspection team in Iraq, is an unlikely poster-person. Avuncular, quiet-spoken but with a sharp and wry sense of humor, the Swedish diplomat has had an eclectic set of enemies. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz set the CIA to investigate him and reportedly “hit the ceiling” when–not for the first time, it now appears–the agency came back with the “wrong” intelligence. On the other hand, before the endgame began, the Iraqis denounced him as a “spy” and some antiwar protesters castigated him and his inspectors as the tools of American warmongers.
That means he probably got it about right, and even now, in his just-published book, Disarming Iraq, he has not gone out of his way to make friends. The failure to discover WMDs in Iraq, he told The Nation in an interview, proves that export controls and rigorous inspection backed by military pressure had already disarmed Iraq before the war.
Coming from the long Swedish tradition of support for the UN, he laconically repudiates the idea prevalent in pro-Administration circles that the organization in any way “failed” when it refused to back the invasion. “It is an interesting notion that when a small minority has been rebuffed by a strong majority, it is the majority that has failed the test,” he says.
Blix depicts the road to war in Iraq as a chronicle of willful self-delusion practiced by the major antagonists, in which Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush effectively conspired to pretend that Iraq was a military threat. He is happy to spread the blame around: to Saddam, for his refusal to cooperate with the inspectors until it was too late, and to the United States, for its refusal to take yes for an answer when the Iraqis did finally agree to let them in.
An optimist, Blix did not give up hope that inspections could avert war until Assistant Secretary of State John Wolf “phoned and told us ‘you better move out.'” Now, he says, “I feel that the most important thing that could have happened is if the US had allowed the inspections to go on at all the sites that they claimed had weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps it would have dawned on them that their intelligence was not so good.”
Blix is not in fact certain that the Administration began with invasion in mind. He comments that “certainly Colin Powell was no more hawkish than [Madeleine] Albright at the beginning. I don’t think they had plans for occupation then, although it may have been in the formative stages. Nothing really happened until 9/11; without that they may have continued the policy of containment. But in that case I’m not sure the inspectors would have got in. It would not have happened easily without the military buildup.”
But once Saddam bowed to the pressure and the inspectors did go in, there was a clear divergence on the role of the inspectors, and Blix characterizes the Bush Administration view in the book as, “The witches exist; you are appointed to deal with these witches; testing whether there are witches is only a dilution of the witch hunt.”
By January 2003, Blix recalls, instead of finding evidence that would justify war, he had his first suspicions that Saddam might be telling the truth. “We received tips about sites from intelligence agencies, and when we went to them only in three cases did we find anything at all.” What they found instead, as he explains in his book, were forgotten odds and ends, leftover cluster bombs and the famous drone, not evidence of any current weapons programs. “It was then we realized that this intelligence was the best they had, but that it did not give us anything.”
Candidly, Blix admits that he himself was surprised by the seeming absence of WMDs and can only guess why Saddam in effect put up a sign saying “Beware of the Dog” when he did not have one. “He might have been sending a signal to neighbors, who would think, ‘Well, although he denied he had weapons, maybe they are there,’ so he would look dangerous.” Alternatively, Blix suggests, perhaps “Saddam heard from US spokesmen many times that only his disappearance would lead to lifting sanctions–that did not give him many incentives.” Other possibilities, he says, are Saddam’s “pride,” or that the Iraqis “knew that some of the UNSCOM inspectors had reported directly to their authorities on military sites they saw, which could afterwards become bombing targets.”
One character who appears prescient about Iraq in Blix’s book is Jacques Chirac, whom Blix went to see just before the war. He recalls, “By then we had begun to have some doubts certainly, but by and large we thought there were weapons. However, he [Chirac] doubted it, and he also was among the first who doubted the intelligence reports.” Blix adds, “He said that the agencies ‘intoxicate each other.’ He also said Saddam was in an intellectual bunker. Which was probably also true.”
Blix obviously relishes the admission by David Kay, the chief US WMD-hunter who recently resigned, that there were no weapons to be found. As Blix’s book shows, for years after leaving the original UN inspection team Kay harshly criticized him and UN inspectors for their alleged failures. Indeed, Blix quotes Kay as writing in January 2003, “Iraq is in breach of UN demands that it dismantle its weapons of mass destruction…. Let’s not give it more time to cheat and retreat.” He is openly skeptical of Kay’s face-saving evidence to Congress alleging weapons “programs” and underground laboratories that, Blix says, “Bush is gratefully quoting.” And he adds, “To that I would say that, well, all the evidence they had for the existence of the stocks of weapons has fallen apart; now let us see what evidence they have for the ‘programs.'”
After Blix’s retirement from the UN, the Swedish government made him the head of an international commission on weapons of mass destruction, which he hopes will produce some “do-able and constructive” findings–although he says in an aside that “news of the new American bunker-buster nuclear bombs may make it harder to raise enthusiasm for a nonproliferation conference in 2005.” Blix does not claim to be a pacifist and quotes Kofi Annan on the efficacy of diplomacy backed by military pressure. But he does not accept the legality of the invasion of Iraq. Although he disowns British newspaper headlines proclaiming that he described Blair’s legal justification as “bogus,” he repeats the claim, albeit more politely: “I don’t think that it is valid to maintain that these resolutions gave authority to individual members of the Security Council to go to war. I think the SC owns its resolutions, and it was for the council to authorize action, not for the individual states to arrogate to themselves that authority.”
Perhaps in this instance Blix’s unfailing politeness actually misleads him. He still assumes that the purpose of the exercise was the disarmament of Iraq, when there is plenty of evidence–some of which he cites himself–that for many in the Administration, the disarmament and inspections were intended as an excuse for the overthrow of a regime that was indeed bloody and tyrannical, but which, as Blix himself points out in his book, was far from unique in that.
And as a post-mortem, the book notes that “a combined UN and IAEA inspection force of fewer than 200 inspectors costing perhaps $80 million per year was pushed out and replaced by an invasion force of some 300,000 personnel costing approximately $80 billion per year.” Blix ends his book with a typically low-key but, for him, strong condemnation of the “greater price” of the invasion “in the compromised legitimacy of the action, in the diminished authority of the United Nations.”