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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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."