Earlier this month Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, was due to give his assessment of Iraq's 12,000-page declaration on its alleged weapons programmes to the UN Security Council. What should we expect, a group of journalists asked one British diplomat. "Oh, you know," he replied smiling. "He will be Blix-like."
No fireworks, in other words. Helped perhaps by his advanced years - he will be 75 this June - and by 40 years of working on disarmament, the bespectacled Blix is not a man to let the politics or emotion of the moment run away with him. A lawyer by training, he prefers a methodical approach, leavened by a dry humour and an avuncular manner.
Never will he need those qualities of calm more than this weekend as he confronts the Iraqi regime one more time in Baghdad. He will be conveying a message that most of the rest of us understood long ago: that unless Iraq does something soon to demonstrate that it is telling the truth when it says it has no weapons of mass destruction, it faces almost certain military catastrophe.
Few diplomats in this generation have faced the kind of pressures that bear down on him today. On this one man - fairly or not - are pinned the hopes of everyone yearning for an alternative to war in the Gulf. He carries a very singular burden: making the difference between war and peace.
For his part, Blix likes to deny the fact. Instead, he insists that he is the simple servant of the 15 ambassadors of the Security Council who must make the decisions. He reports; they must interpret and act. "War and peace are not in our hands," he says often. "We are following the rules set down by the Security Council. They are our bible, our Koran, whatever you prefer." He points also to Saddam Hussein himself, who could stop Washington's war machine at once with a conversion to honesty.
But he is guilty of false modesty. How the council responds will turn on what Blix tells it. What happens next in the Gulf is likely to rest on the tiniest calibrations of his words when he comes to describe to ambassadors just how his inspections are going and what - if anything - has been turned up in Iraq. He is due to make such a report on 27 January, a date whose significance most council members are eager to downplay. Not so the US, however, which makes no secret of its impatience.
This moment has been three years coming for Blix, whose desk high in the UN Secretariat has a glossy satellite picture of Baghdad hanging above it. He was on an Antarctic cruise with his wife, Eva, in January 2000 when he got a call from Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, asking him to head Unmovic, or the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission. It had just been created by the council as the successor to Unscom, the body that unsuccessfully probed Iraq during the 1990s.
Blix had fine credentials. He has a doctorate in law from Uppsala University in his native Sweden, and a PhD from Cambridge. He served in the Swedish foreign ministry from 1963 until 1978, when he became that country's foreign minister. For 20 years until 1981, he was on Sweden's delegation to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Thereafter, he headed the International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA) in Vienna until his retirement in 1997. Yet, as chief weapons inspector, he was the first choice of no one. And from the outset, those who mattered were suspicious. Iraq branded him a nonentity, while Washington fretted that he would be too soft. Moreover, there were many who remembered that during the 1980s, Iraq managed to build up a nuclear weapons programme under the noses of the IAEA and Blix. …