THE GREATEST THREAT: Iraq, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the Crisis of Global Security.
THERE HAVE BEEN NO WEAPONS inspectors in Iraq since December 1998. If that statement doesn't scare the crap out of you, it should. Although most of Saddam Hussein's arsenal of mass destruction has been accounted for and destroyed, he's had 18 months to rebuild it. The full extent of his biological weapons program remains a mystery, and there is evidence that the Iraqi dictator is hoarding supplies of the nerve gas VX--a substance so toxic that a single warhead of it could kill up to one million people. The United States and its Gulf War allies spent $61 billion to drive Saddam from Kuwait and box him in with UN Security Council Resolutions. Maybe it's time to ask for a refund.
Whenever a monumental foreign policy screw-up occurs, there's an inevitable rush to "investigate the truth," assign blame, and offer up a sacrificial lamb. In the case of Iraq, one lamb-of-choice has been Richard Buffer, the Australian diplomat who in 1997 took over from Rolf Ekeus as head of the now-defunct United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) tasked with disarming Iraq. In his book Endgame, Scott Ritter--the chief inspector of UNSCOM who resigned in August 1998--portrays his former boss as a Clinton administration puppet, declaring that "Butler appeared to have forgotten that he was a servant of the Security Council, not the United States." With the smell of Butler's blood in the water, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan joined the feeding frenzy. Although Annan did not personally criticize his former colleague, the Secretary-General's inner circle of advisers anonymously leaked unflattering stories to the press that characterized Butler as a vulgar roughneck who had allowed UNSCOM to get out of control.
It was only a matter of time before Butler weighed in with his side of the story. His book, The Greatest Threat, chronicles the decline and fall of UNSCOM during his tenure as executive chairman. Readers expecting an angry, tell-all memoir will be disappointed. This book is not "Richard Butler Responds to His Critics." Instead, he prefers to let the facts (as he saw them) speak for themselves and offers a dispassionate analysis of how the United Nations undermined the efforts of its own weapons inspectors.
Butler devotes fewer than 10 pages to addressing the most serious charges leveled against him. Among the most prominent of those allegations was Scott Ritter's claim that the CIA had infiltrated UNSCOM and that the United States had used evidence gathered by the weapons inspectors to select bombing targets in Baghdad. While Butler doesn't hide behind excuses along the lines of Al Gore's "no controlling legal authority," he comes perilously close. "Is it possible that some UNSCOM data, without my knowledge, made its way into the vast hopper of information used in U.S. military targeting?" he asks. "Maybe," he responds. Having offered that mother-of-all caveats, Buffer goes on to explain that the United States, which possesses spy satellites that can practically read license plates from 50 miles in orbit, likely had little use for a small-shop operation such as UNSCOM. "If anything," he notes, "we at UNSCOM coveted the highly advanced intelligence data the Americans owned." Buffer, in fact, blames Ritter for handing the Iraqis a propaganda tool that they used to great effect in their ongoing diplomatic offensive to reign in UNSCOM.
As for Ritter's other allegation--that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger unduly influenced UNSCOM on the scope and timing of weapons inspections--Butler offers a categorical denial. "Senior U.S. officials never crossed the clear line between saying what they thought would be best, on the one hand, and seeking to give me directions, on the other," he notes. Indeed, far more significant than what Buffer says about U.S. policy makers is what he doesn't say about them. Clinton administration officials are peripheral actors throughout his narrative, which seems odd in light of the central role they played in orchestrating international policy toward Iraq. It's hard not to get the impression that Butler is going out of his way to show there was no U.S. influence.
With the United States consigned to the background, Buffer focuses most of his narrative on the Byzantine politics at the UN. He recounts how three permanent members of the Security Council-France, China, and Russia--were becoming increasingly impatient with UNSCOM's "failure" to wrap up its work and clear the way for the lifting of sanctions. The Russians, as far as Buffer was concerned, had become Iraq's de facto surrogate on the Security Council--driven by a desire to recoup the $8 billion that Iraq still owed them for military equipment. (Also, Butler learned by way of "reliable intelligence reports," that then-Russian Foreign Minister Yevegeny Primakov was receiving personal payoffs from the Iraqi regime.)
Butler, however, reserves some of his harshest criticism for Kofi Annan, whom he portrays as a Neville Chamberlainesque figure, often more intent on defusing potential military conflict with Iraq than on verifying the destruction of Saddam Hussein's arsenal. With painstaking (and sometimes painful) attention to detail, Butler parses the words of one UN document after another, revealing how UNSCOM's authority was gradually whittled away. Moreover, Butler came to realize that Annan's inner circle of advisers had grown increasingly distrustful of UNSCOM, since it didn't conform to proper UN culture. "Simply put, they couldn't bear the unusual--and essential--degree of independence we enjoyed."
Butler himself became the trigger man for terminating UNSCOM. His December 1998 report detailing Saddam's continued intransigence led to the U.S.-led bombing of Iraq ("Operation Desert Fox") and the final expulsion of UN weapons inspectors. To fill the void left by the dissolution of UNSCOM, the UN Security Council created the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) in December 1999. A better name for it might have been "UNSCOM Lite"--the executive chairman of the agency must submit any significant policy decision for advice and consent to a college of commissioners. So much for an independent arms control agency.
As Butler warns, these commissioners "would not be technical experts but rather diplomats appointed by governments ... in short, political commissars." Meanwhile, Saddam still won't allow UN inspectors back into Iraq (he was apparently unmoved by the UN resolution dictating that UNMOVIC staff must be given "cultural training" to be more "sensitive" to Iraqi feelings).
Looking back upon the death of UNSCOM, Butler understandably worries about the precedent Iraq might set for other nations who now see how easy it is to cheat on arms-control agreements and get away with it. He argues that since each permanent member of the UN Security Council has veto power, it is all but impossible to guarantee that any international arms control treaty will ever be credibly enforced. In this context he proposes the formation of a "United Nations Council on Weapons of Mass Destruction"--the members of which would pledge never to use their veto power. It's difficult to fault Butler's reasons for creating such an organization, but his own narrative suggests that it won't work. Nations could not overcome their narrow self-interests to destroy the arsenal of Saddam Hussein, a dictator who invaded a neighboring country and used chemical weapons against his own people. What hope is there then that these same nations would ever empower any organization to enforce arms control agreements against themselves?
MARK STRAUSS is Senior Editor of Foreign Policy magazine.