Disarming Iraq

Article excerpt

DISARMING IRAQ Hans Blix New York: Pantheon, 2004. x, 292pp, $34.00 cloth (ISBN 0-375-42302-8)

In the extended run-up to the Iraq war, a previously little-known Swedish diplomat by the name of Hans Blix held the world media's rapt attention. As chairman of UNMOVIC (the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission for Iraq), Blix, along with his colleague Mohamed ElBaradei, was at centre stage in the unfolding drama of the confrontation with Saddam Hussein's regime. Would Blix's weapons inspectors find hidden evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that both the US and UK governments and their intelligence communities claimed existed? Would they provide the UN security council with the grounds to declare Iraq in "material breach" of its disarmament obligations and so pave the way for an UNauthorized war? Would a truculent Iraq cooperate and stave off an invasion?

Blix has a cherished souvenir from this period of his life, a poster brandished during one of the massive peace marches in New York City that reads "Blix not Bombs." But it is one of the more rewarding features of his memoir that Blix resists the temptation to inflate his power over events. He knows that it was never a case of "Blix not Bombs." He was a faithful servant of the UN security council, no more, and UNMOVIC was its instrument. UNMOVIC's ascendancy reflected the fragile consensus that surrounded UN security council resolution 1441, passed in November 2002, that gave Iraq a final chance to cooperate with the international community in disarmament. When that consensus dissolved and the security council became deadlocked, Blix and UNMOVIC became onlookers to decisions made in Baghdad, Washington, and London. Despite the weight of expectations and diplomatic stardom that descended on Blix, he comes across as a man of great integrity, a memoirist to be trusted. Though his book has by now faded from the best-seller lists, it deserves an honourable place in the library of key works on the genesis of the Iraq War.

The greatest asset of Blix's memoir is that it provides important context for understanding the history, nature, strengths, and limitations of UNMOVIC. The UN agency was an experiment in the ongoing evolution (let's hope still ongoing) of international arms control; it was a work in progress. It had, as its title suggests, multiple functions. Perhaps least understood is that fact that UNMOVIC was one part intelligence service-though the label is anathema in UN precincts. Its job was to collect and assess intelligence on Iraqi WMD. Of course it was different from national intelligence services in that it didn't employ spies and engage in covert missions. It relied on open-source information, including commercial spy satellite imagery, reports submitted by national intelligence services, and, crucially, Iraqi disclosures. It was also anxious, as Blix makes very clear, to distance itself from the style, and some of the operations, of the previous UNSCOM inspection regime, which had got up to some highly dubious intelligence missions and handed Saddam Hussein the opportunity to denounce it as a puppet spy agency for the Americans and Israelis. UNSCOM was unceremoniously ejected from Iraq in 1998. Blix supported a more diplomatic approach to weapons inspections, and thought a non-confrontational style was more likely to succeed. UNSCOM, in his view, tended towards Rambo-like tactics.

When Blix agreed to come out of retirement and take over UNMOVIC in March 2000, there was little to do beyond training, updating files, and waiting for the day when Iraq and the UN agreed on the resumption of inspections. The call came in September 2002, following George W. Bush's speech to the UN security council. UNMOVIC's first inspections in Iraq took place on 27 November, marking the end of a four year hiatus. Its last day in the field was 17 March 2003, a nail-biting time for Blix, who worried that his inspectors might be taken hostage by the Iraqis before they could be withdrawn. …