The Greatest Threat

Iraq, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the Growing Crisis of Global Security

by Richard Butler

Public Affairs, 304 pp., $ 26

The Greatest Threat reveals two Richard Butlers. The first is the determined executive director of the United Nations Special Commission -- UNSCOM -- who relentlessly sought to uncover and destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction through one of the world's most vigorous experiments in arms control and disarmament.

The second is a true believer in the Church of Arms Control, a man of faith devoted to a "tapestry of treaties" woven since World War II. The measure of Butler's faith is that he still adheres to his church after two years of being scourged almost daily by Saddam Hussein, the U.N. secretary general and his senior staff, and three permanent members of the Security Council (Russia, France, and China).

The unfortunate irony of The Greatest Threat is that the second Butler is unwilling to draw the correct conclusions from the first's experiences. Perhaps the two men should be introduced.

Butler's description of UNSCOM's thankless efforts to make Iraq comply with Security Council Resolution 687 -- the cease-fire resolution adopted at the end of the Gulf War -- is required, if depressing, reading not just for those concerned with Iraq or the Middle East, but for anyone assessing the future shape of world politics, arms control, and "global governance." The next president's foreign policy team should be reading this book now.

Take Iraq, for starters. Butler lays out in careful detail the precise course of Iraq's cheating, obstruction, and deceit, as it attempted to preserve its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile capability. The Iraqis provided false information about their weapons stores and research and manufacturing capabilities; they imposed innumerable restrictions on UNSCOM inspectors; they tried to put many important locations (the "presidential sites" and other "sensitive" areas) off limits; they made UNSCOM's tactics and the whole UNSCOM process the object of attention rather than their own failure to disarm; they attacked American and British participation in UNSCOM; they used the Russian, Chinese, and French to gather intelligence on UNSCOM's activities (according to Butler, they were paying off the Russian foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov); they engaged in an unending propaganda campaign about U.N. economic sanctions (while food and medicine were stockpiled by the Iraqi military and deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz continued to enjoy expensive Cuban cigars); and they maligned and insulted UNSCOM personnel, particularly Butler. Among other things.

Of course, the Iraqis were correct in their central insight: If they resisted long enough, Western (and especially American) attention would wane, and Iraq would achieve its two post-Gulf War goals: ending the economic sanctions and rebuilding its capability for weapons of mass destruction. By stalling, evading, and then crushing UNSCOM, and by relentlessly ignoring and dodging the sanctions and other U.N. resolutions, the Iraqis have now essentially accomplished both goals. Although the largest share of the blame must rest with the Clinton administration, Butler is reticent about his communications with the United States government, and his account is the "inside" U.N. history. There is, nonetheless, more than enough there to turn anyone's stomach.

Butler's indictment of secretary general Kofi Annan and his senior staff has to be read in its entirety to be fully appreciated. More than any other secretary general, Annan is a product of the United Nations, having spent the bulk of his career there, and as such is as much a distillation of the U.N. ethos as one can imagine. Accordingly, Iraq's enormous diplomatic achievement in enticing Annan into the middle of its dispute with UNSCOM says much about the U.N. Initially, Annan became mesmerized by Iraqi objections to the number of American personnel participating in UNSCOM activities, and dispatched a troika of personal envoys to Baghdad to negotiate a settlement. By so doing, Annan treated Iraq like a U.N. member in good standing, not a defeated aggressor state. Butler skewers this approach, which "was seen by Iraq as further confirmation that Annan was committed to diplomatic solution to Iraq's recalcitrance, without obliging it to be disarmed. Iraq's new policy of enhanced resistance to and then destruction of UNSCOM was given a boost."

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.

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