The Magazine

Arms Inspection and the Man

Richard Butler's memoir of his struggle against Saddam Hussein

Jun 26, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 39 • By JOHN R. BOLTON
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Then, as the confrontation intensified, Annan decided that he must personally travel to Iraq to meet Saddam Hussein. Annan actually said with a straight face that Saddam was a man "I can do business with." Although Annan's agreement in February 1998 achieved his objective of preventing American and British military action against Iraq (and almost certainly had the Lewinsky-distracted Clinton administration's blessing), it also guaranteed the demise of UNSCOM. By accepting the notion that Iraq's "presidential sites" should receive special treatment, Annan effectively repealed Resolution 687. As Butler bluntly states it: "The leadership of the U.N. had become a facilitator of Iraqi concealment." From that point on, there were "increasing attempts by the friends of Iraq, including the Office of the Secretary General, to question" not just the diplomacy but the substance of UNSCOM's work.

Butler's description of the late 1997 breakdown of consensus among the five permanent members of the Security Council is especially chilling. The dispute over Iraq marked the first major breakdown in cooperation since it began in the late 1980s with American receptivity to Gorbachev's "new thinking" in Soviet foreign policy. And the split sent a devastating signal to observers in Baghdad. Although China always stood somewhat apart from this process, and Russia never entered it fully, the most distressing defector was France. Its U.N. ambassador described as "perhaps a truckers' picnic" a high-altitude picture of 130 heavy Republican Guard trucks fleeing a site UNSCOM inspectors were approaching. "France played (and continues to play) both sides of the street, happily accepting every benefit from its place in the Western alliance while never feeling seriously restrained in pursuing narrower national interests," Butler writes. "They know that, after a period of agitation, their allies will always forgive and excuse them: 'Oh, well, you know how the French are.' They suffer no losses from this game, and so they go on playing it."

And yet despite this cavalcade of error and folly chronicled by the first Butler in The Greatest Threat, the second Butler still adheres to the true faith of arms control through international law. In his introduction, he refers to the Security Council as "the lawmaker" in this field, the secretary general as "the guardian of the law," "the authority of international law," and the Security Council's "failure to enforce their own law." This is heavy-duty faith -- especially when what follows over the next two hundred pages is proof that Butler may have been the only person involved in the entire UNSCOM exercise who actually believed any of this theology.

Indeed, Butler himself does understand "the greatest threat" of his book's title: "Iraq's successful violation of the treaties against weapons of mass destruction has shaken those [arms-control] agreements and the faith held by nations in them. . . . Saddam's cheating has been detected, but it has not been stopped. . . . If Saddam finally gets away with it, the whole structure could well collapse."

This is exactly correct. Unfortunately, Butler's solution is for the permanent members of the Security Council to "solemnly declare to the world that they will always act together to remedy" violations of an arms-control treaty, and that, therefore, "they will undertake never to use or to threaten to use their veto in such circumstances."

But it was precisely the inability of the declared nuclear powers to act together that allowed Iraq to escape from UNSCOM to begin with -- and Saddam's Iraq was the easy case. If the members of the Security Council cannot maintain their discipline against a state that systematically obstructed their own authority -- after it had used weapons of mass destruction against its own population and committed unprovoked aggression against a small neighbor -- what can they handle?

The former assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, John R. Bolton is senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute.