Week after week Bush and his people have been getting pounded by newly emboldened Democrats and liberal pundits for having exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and his still-elusive weapons of mass destruction. One day CIA Director George Tenet is hung out to dry; the next it’s the turn of Paul Wolfowitz’s platoon of mad Straussians. The other side of the Atlantic, the same sort of thing has been happening to Tony Blair.
They deserve the pounding, but if we’re to be fair there’s an even more deserving target, a man of impeccable liberal credentials, well respected in the sort of confabs attended by New Labour and espousers of the Third Way. I give you Rolf Ekeus, former Swedish ambassador to the United States and, before that, the executive chairman of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) on Iraq from 1991 to 1997. These days he’s chairman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a noted dovecote of the olive-branch set.
In the wake of the first Iraq war it was UNSCOM chief Ekeus, exuding disinterested integrity as only a Swede can, who insisted that Saddam Hussein was surely pressing forward with the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. It was Ekeus who played a pivotal role in justifying the continued imposition of sanctions, on the grounds that these sanctions were essential as a means of applying pressure on the tyrant in Baghdad.
In 1996 Ramsey Clark, former US Attorney General and a leading critic of the indiscriminate cruelty of these sanctions, wrote an open letter to Ekeus beginning thus: “Dear Mr. Ekeus, How many children are you willing to let die while you search for ‘items’ you ‘are convinced still exist in’ Iraq?… Every two months for the past half year, and on earlier occasions, you or your office have made some statement several weeks before the Security Council considers sanctions against Iraq which you know will be used to cause their continuation…. This cruel and endless hoax of new disclosures every two months must stop. The direct consequence of your statements which are used to justify continuation of the sanctions against Iraq is the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent and helpless infants, children and elderly and chronically ill human beings.”
Despite many such furious denunciations, till the day Ekeus handed over his job as UNSCOM chief to the more obviously suspect and disheveled Australian Richard Butler, Ekeus continued in the manner stigmatized by Clark and others. US ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright notoriously said to Lesley Stahl of CBS, of the lethal sanctions that killed half a million Iraqi children, “We think the price is worth it,” but Ekeus was the one who furnished the UN’s diplomatic cover for that repulsive calculus.
It’s fortunate for Ekeus’s reputation among the genteel liberal crowd that public awareness of what he really knew about Saddam’s chemical, biological and nuclear weapons is still slight. In fact, Ekeus was perfectly well aware from the mid-1990s on that Saddam Hussein had no such weapons of mass destruction. They had all been destroyed after the first Gulf War.