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How Not to Fight a Dictator

1.

Adolf Hitler taught the world a terrible lesson, but when he was at last put away, in 1945, it was widely believed that the lesson had been learned. Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, the most innovative part of that document, sets forth a formula for dealing with aggression and with aggressive, ruthless dictators. Briefly, the Security Council determines the existence of an act of aggression. It then prescribes nonforceful measures—cutting off economic relations and means of communication, the severance of diplomatic relations, and other measures that constitute sanctions. If sanctions fail, the Council orders enforcement action with air, sea, and land forces provided by the member states, under a command designated by the Council.

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 provided a textbook opportunity for trying out this plan of action. With the end of the cold war, the Security Council was united as never before. Saddam Hussein’s acts, as outrageous as they were brutal, threatened the security of a strategically sensitive region and the source of much of the world’s oil. The Council’s actions, in strong contrast to its failure to act ten years earlier when Saddam had invaded Iran, were exemplary and prompt. It unanimously denounced the aggression; it imposed sanctions; and it gave clear indications that nothing short of withdrawal from Kuwait would do. Since four of the Council’s five permanent members—Britain, France, Russia, and the United States—had continued to support Iraq throughout the 1980s in spite of its aggression against Iran, the appalling internal atrocities of Saddam’s regime, and his widespread use of chemical weapons both externally and internally, this action was a striking volte-face.

Saddam Hussein refused to withdraw, and early in 1991 Operation Desert Storm, a powerful air assault followed by an equally ambitious ground operation, achieved the liberation of Kuwait and the humiliating defeat of Iraq’s army, although not the destruction of its best units, the Republican Guards. The Desert Storm forces did not pursue the enemy to Baghdad or try to oust the dictator.

Instead, the Security Council propounded, in its Resolution 687, the “mother of all resolutions,” the conditions for a cease-fire, imposing harsh terms on Iraq as a condition for lifting the sanctions. These included the payment of debts and compensation, the return of prisoners, and, most important, the elimination, under international inspection, of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, chemical, and biological—as well as the missiles that could carry such weapons. The Council set up a special commission (UNSCOM) to carry out the inspections that would show that Iraq neither harbored such weapons nor was building them. Both the members of the Security Council and Saddam Hussein apparently believed that this process would take just a few months—the Security Council members because they had no idea of how important such weapons were to Saddam Hussein, and Saddam because he was confident that he could hoodwink the UN inspectors. Both proved to be wrong.

Confidence in the UN’s newfound ability to act effectively against aggression was greatly boosted by this sequence of events, and, up to the passage of Resolution 687 on April 4, 1991, all went reasonably well. Thereafter, a series of unanticipated problems began to emerge. Defeating a dictator in the field is one thing; ousting him and installing a new regime is quite another. Like Hitler, Saddam Hussein had created a system of all-pervasive surveillance and terror which made him virtually impervious to public opinion, international pressure, or internal conspiracies.

The effectiveness, and the effects, of sanctions also turned out to be discouraging. In a tyranny sanctions can actually make the tyrant and his henchmen more powerful and richer through the profits they make from smuggling scarce commodities and manipulating their supply. That has been the case in Iraq. Meanwhile the suffering people are doubly victimized, by the dictator and by the sanctions, which in turn provide Saddam Hussein with a powerful psychological weapon in his dealings with his subjects and with the outside world. (By February 1998, the Iraqi government had allowed eight hundred foreign reporters into Baghdad, encouraging them to film hospital wards full of dying children, so that viewers around the world could witness the ghastly effects of sanctions.)

As is often said, the United Nations can only be as strong as the consensus of its members. Coalitions on particular issues tend to be eroded by politi-cal and economic differences, and even by fatigue. In the case of Iraq three of the five permanent members of the Security Council—China, France, and Russia—not to mention the Arab countries, have become increasingly unhappy with continuing sanctions, with UNSCOM, which they had originally supported, and with the United States’ periodic use of cruise missiles and bombing to punish Saddam’s regime for refusing to cooperate with UNSCOM. More recently there have been almost daily US actions against Iraq for its violations of the “no-fly” zones. Thus the United States and Britain have become more and more isolated when they apply a forceful approach to the Iraq problem.

Meanwhile, the world’s attention has been turned to another ruthless dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, and to the frustration both of diplomacy and of military action in trying to deal with him. Milosevic has refused to accept the peace agreement worked out at Rambouillet, which calls for Kosovo’s autonomy, and he has continued to kill and violently persecute the Kosovars. Because of NATO’s reluctance to invade a sovereign nation and the understandable unwillingness of governments to put their soldiers in harm’s way for a humanitarian cause, there has so far been no prospect of NATO’s taking forceful action on the ground in Kosovo. Instead, the last resort, as in Iraq, has once again been a campaign of heavy missile and air strikes, with little prospect that they can produce a satisfactory solution.

At the same time the United Nations is further than ever from having a respected, effective, and genuinely international force that could eventually take the necessary risks on behalf of the international community. The concept of such a force, incidentally, was supported only seven years ago by both former President Ronald Reagan and President Bill Clinton. Just allowing a UN force to be organized would not, of course, of itself provide political solutions; but if it were backed by the US and some of the other major powers, it could eventually make effective international action a reality and set the international community on a unifying course rather than a divisive one.1

There seem to be many, especially in Washington, who want to have it both ways—no American soldiers to be put at risk, and no effective UN force. The result is that in a time when we pride ourselves on a new degree of humanitarian concern, the most tragic cases of ethnic cleansing and other abuses engender only frustration and inaction. The fact that any UN force would be under the control of the Security Council, thus giving the United States a veto over its use, apparently does not carry weight with US legislators. In fact right-wing Republicans such as Senator Helms insist that the US will pay its arrears in UN dues only on the condition that there be no UN military force. As we agonize over the desperate plight of the Kosovars and other oppressed groups, we continue to resist ideas for doing anything practical to help them in the future.

2.

Andrew and Patrick Cockburn’s Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein and Scott Ritter’s Endgame: Solving the Iraq Problem—Once and for All provide much fascinating commentary on the question of dealing with Saddam Hussein and the ups and downs of the various efforts to do so. The Cockburns’ book, as is to be expected from two first-rate investigative journalists, is an enthralling account of the background and recent history of Iraq, its internal struggles, and its relations with the outside world. Ritter’s story of his experiences as an inspector with UNSCOM is inevitably narrower in scope but it is highly illuminating on the nature and difficulties of this pioneering effort. Ritter, a strong-minded intelligence officer, is not shy of controversy or of making strong judgments. This adds considerably to the interest of his book, and also to the disagreements that it is certain to provoke.

Both books concentrate on the repellent nature of the Iraqi regime and of the dictator himself, but they also make clear how skillful Saddam has been in maintaining his regime’s power, which has been firmly based on his tribe, from northern Iraq near Tikrit, and his family, whose members have been given huge powers and financial opportunities. For all their palace intrigues, Saddam’s people often appear to be running rings around bumbling political opponents and international organizations trying to keep them under control.

Both the Cockburns and Ritter recount the violent history of Iraq since its founding by the British in 1921, and in particular the tumultuous years since Saddam Hussein took power in 1979. Made up of three groups—Sunni, Shi’ites, and Kurds—who were, on the whole, hostile to one another, Iraq was never a happy or homogeneous state. Saddam Hussein was not the first Iraqi ruler to use aerial bombing for internal purposes. After the Arab rebellion of 1920, the British, preferring not to commit British forces on the ground, used air power against insurgent groups opposing King Faisal, whom they had installed as the reluctant sovereign of the new state. Saddam Hussein, however, set a new and horrifying standard of terror, ruthlessness, wanton cruelty, and gross veniality. Those who survive within his regime do not seem to be embarrassed by this—indeed they tend to boast about it.

As crisis has succeeded crisis and as treachery has followed treachery, Saddam’s control over his tribe and family has become tighter and tighter. In view of the constant purges and executions, and the prevailing terror and paranoia, it is amazing that his regime has lasted as long as it has, but in its own ghastly way it evidently works, and has been remarkably resilient. This unpleasant fact, combined with the rampant megalomania and brutish skill of the dictator himself, has so far proved baffling to all of his opponents.

The Cockburns excel in describing the grotesque side of the family business. In 1988, Saddam’s eldest son, Uday, killed his father’s favorite assistant, Kamel Jajo, and in 1995 shot his father’s half-brother, Watban; he also became one of the most corrupt figures in a deeply corrupt regime. Finally he was himself nearly killed by assassins. Summing up the events of 1996, the Cockburns write,

In the space of just over a year, Saddam had seen two of his sons-in-law killed, his half-brother shot in the leg, and his eldest son riddled with bullets. Even if he was scoring significant successes against the Americans at Arbil [the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan] and elsewhere, this was clearly not a happy family.

Saddam Hussein’s reaction to this running family crisis was to summon the surviving members around Uday’s hospital bed for a meeting at which he systematically blamed his relatives for many acts of violence and corruption that knowledgeable Iraqis had previously attributed to Saddam himself—to whom, Saddam said, they owed everything. The tape of this meeting somehow found its way to London where it was made public. The Cockburns believe this was precisely Saddam’s intention.

Why, after all these years, does this grand-guignol regime, battered by unprecedented international action as well as by self-inflicted wounds, continue to present an apparently insuperable problem to the rest of the world? Both of the books under review point out that the United States (and the United Nations) have never had a coherent strategy, an “endgame” as Ritter calls it, for dealing conclusively with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. And both books show the false assumptions, inconsistencies, misconceptions, obsessions, prejudices, and sheer willful ignorance and inattention that have so often marked Western, and especially United States, policies and actions concerning Iraq. The Cockburns give a dismaying account of these failings.

On February 15, 1991, for example, President Bush appealed to the Iraqi military and people “to take matters into their own hands and to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.” Not surprisingly Iraqis, especially in the predominantly Shi’ite south contiguous to the Desert Storm forces’ front line, thought they were being asked to join in the fight. But the US forces then in southern Iraq refused to support the uprising that resulted, apparently because they believed, wrongly, that Iran was behind it. (This episode recalls the rhetoric of Radio Free Europe urging satellite countries to rise up against Soviet occupation in the early 1950s, the ensuing 1956 Hungarian revolt, and the stony silence that greeted the insurgents’ desperate pleas for Western help.)

Until the recent change, in tone at least, of the positions of some of the Iranian leaders, the US policy of “dual containment” has viewed Iran and Iraq as equal pariah states, a considerable obstacle, one might think, to mustering all possible support for dealing with Saddam Hussein. There was also the fear of creating chaos in Iraq, expressed in the words of National Security Council official Richard Haass apropos of the Kurdish uprising in the north: “Our policy is to get rid of Saddam, not his regime.” In any case, by the end of March 1991, and with great brutality, Saddam Hussein had put down the southern revolt under the noses of Desert Storm forces. This was a turning point for the humiliated and defeated dictator. When we consider the subsequent fumbling attempts to foster an “internal opposition” in Iraq, the United States reaction to the 1991 Shi’ite revolt seems both a cynical betrayal of people who had believed they were allies and also a tragically missed opportunity.

Ignorance about Saddam’s regime and power seems to have led to a widely held view in Washington that sanctions would eventually bring it down. If anything they have reinforced it, while starving the Iraqi people. There was also an extraordinary ignorance about the extent of Saddam’s programs to produce weapons of mass destruction. Neither the nuclear weapons plant at al-Atheer—the Los Alamos of Iraq—nor the biological weapons facility at al-Hakam was touched by the Desert Storm bombing campaign, because nobody knew they were there. Early and unrealistic appraisals of UNSCOM’s task were doubtless based on such ignorance, and also on a misreading of Saddam Hussein’s obsession with weapons of mass destruction, which, quite apart from their possibilities as first-strike weapons, he almost certainly regards as the ultimate deterrent against his external enemies, and perhaps some internal ones as well. As William R. Polk put it in these pages, “Saddam knows that Israel has nuclear weapons, and that Iran is on the way to acquiring them…. He believes, I am sure, that he will never be secure until he has them too.”2

The CIA has, of course, had a part in the long-drawn-out drama, and much of the time the agency’s performance has alternated between farce and tragedy. A particular problem has been the CIA’s concept of the “Iraqi opposition,” which consists in part of groups of expatriates, sometimes of doubtful antecedents, competing for limited support and often engaging in internecine quarrels in the process. In northern Iraq the two main Kurdish factions actually went to war with each other in August 1996, with catastrophic consequences. One, under Jalal Talabani, sought, and got, Iranian support; and the other, under Massoud Barzani, appealed to Saddam Hussein. Moving north, the Iraqi forces rounded up the Iraqi opposition groups who were concentrated in Iraqi Kurdistan, put the CIA team with them to ignominious flight, and occupied the Kurdish capital, Arbil. Saddam Hussein then withdrew his army units, leaving behind a large network of security agents—all in all a big success for the Iraqi dictator. Some 6,500 Iraqis and Kurds who escaped were flown by Washington to Guam, and eventually to the United States. (Six of them are still detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service in a prison in the Mojave Desert, on poorly substantiated suspicions of being Iraqi agents.)

An attempted coup against Saddam, organized in 1996 from Amman in cooperation with one of the two principal Iraqi opposition groups, Iyad Alawi’s Iraqi National Accord (INA), provides a compendium of virtually everything that can possibly go wrong in such an enterprise. As the Cockburns describe it, far too many people and groups were involved from the outset, and with US elections approaching some believed they were under pressure from the Clinton administration for an early “move” against Saddam Hussein. Alawi, obsessed with publicity, held a press conference to announce the opening of his headquarters in Amman; his highly suggestive rhetoric can only have alerted Iraqi intelligence, and he continued to court public attention.

The INA believed that, with the help of a retired Iraqi general living in Amman, it would be able to get cooperation in a coup from Iraqi officers actually serving in the Republican Guard and the Iraqi security establishment. The general’s three sons, active officers in the Republican Guard, were to provide the core of the revolt. This gave the operation special promise. Messages to Baghdad from Amman had to be entrusted to one of the professional drivers approved by Iraqi intelligence, so the CIA provided the INA with an advanced satellite system for communication with the plotters in Baghdad. Incredibly, one of the approved drivers was entrusted with carrying the equipment to Baghdad; he was intercepted and arrested by the Iraqis. In contrast to the garrulous plotters in Amman, Iraqi intelligence kept quiet about their capture of the satellite equipment. Instead, putting it to good use, they watched, waited, and listened.

When Ahmad Chalabi of the rival Iraqi National Congress (INC) learned from a source inside Iraq of the capture and use of the satellite equipment, he went to Washington to warn the CIA. The agency, however, believing that he was motivated by jealousy of the rival opposition group, rejected his warnings. The doomed operation went on. In June 1996, in The Washington Post, Alawi actually spoke of a forthcoming “secret” operation. In late June in Baghdad the arrests began—120 officers of the Republican Guard and General Security Service in the first sweep. The Cockburns estimate that in all some eight hundred people were purged, including many senior officers. Then, for the first time, Iraqi intelligence broke its silence. According to the Cockburns, a final message came through the Amman satellite terminal from the Iraqi intelligence agency, the Mukhabarat, to the CIA. “We have arrested all your people,” it reportedly said. “You might as well pack up and go home.”

The Cockburns describe a little-known group—al-Naddah, “the Awakening”—whose operating procedures differed in every way from those of the CIA and the Iraqi opposition. This was—perhaps still is—a group of dedicated young idealists and professionals strongly opposed to Saddam’s dictatorship and the damage it was doing to Iraq. They formed an underground organization of hermetically sealed cells designed to limit the damage that could result from arrests and torture of its members. Their major achievement was the nearly successful assassination, in December 1996, of Saddam’s son Uday, an effort which destroyed the aura of invincibility surrounding Saddam’s immediate family and probably did more harm to the regime than the INC and the INA combined.

3.

The Special Commission is a temporary measure,” Saddam Hussein told his closest colleagues in 1991. “We will fool them and we will bribe them and the matter will be over in a few months.” The Cockburns heard about this statement from a high-level defector. In making so grave a miscalculation, the dictator was reckoning without at least two important factors—Rolf Ekeus, the first executive chairman of UNSCOM, and two or three top-level Iraqi defectors.

In 1991 Rolf Ekeus was the Swedish representative at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, a group devoted, among other things, to negotiating a worldwide ban on chemical weapons. He was a skilled Swedish diplomat whose restraint and quiet manner concealed a highly principled approach and a tough and determined character. When Iraqi warplanes dropped nerve gas and mustard gas on the Kurdish inhabitants of Halabja in northern Iraq in 1988, all governments, including Sweden, had remained shamefully silent. Ekeus informed his superiors in Stockholm that, whatever Swedish policy might be, he was going to denounce this outrage in an impending disarmament conference. According to the Cockburns, he was the only official representative of any government in the world except Iran to denounce the use of chemical weapons at Halabja. Neither Saddam Hussein nor the United States apparently realized that, in Ekeus, UNSCOM had an extraordinarily determined, independent, and skillful leader.

From the beginning Ekeus’s task was to plod forward through a repetitive sequence of Iraqi denials, concealments, partial disclosures, and further discoveries by UNSCOM, sometimes of physical evidence of weapons programs and sometimes of telltale documentation, leading to further partial Iraqi admissions of missile research, or biological or chemical warfare programs. Later on, this pattern would be punctuated by Iraqi threats of non-cooperation, countered by threats, and sometimes the reality, of United States air strikes. Occasionally the inspectors would make an unexpected breakthrough, as with the discovery, through satellite photographs, of calutrons, the huge electromagnetic isotope separators being used in Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. When the Iraqis tried to remove the vehicles carrying the calutrons, UNSCOM inspectors filmed the unmistakable shapes as they were being driven away.

Iraqi defectors made a decisive contribution to UNSCOM’s work. Wafiq al-Samarrai, the former chief of military intelligence, revealed the use of VX gas in warheads, and much about the production of anthrax and other biological warfare agents. Hussein Kamal, Saddam’s son-in-law, who briefly defected to Amman, then returned and was executed, had actually been in charge both of the weapons of mass destruction program and of the concealment system. The Iraqi authorities, whose excuses were often fanciful and sometimes fantastic, blamed tactics used to deceive UNSCOM squarely on the defector Hussein Kamal. In making his way through this hall of mirrors, Ekeus kept his temper and his sense of direction. He rightly commanded the respect of his inspectors and of almost everyone else as well. Among the people described in the two books under review, Ekeus comes closest to being a hero.

Scott Ritter, a former officer in the US Marines, spent seven years with UNSCOM, the last two as head of the Concealment Investigations Unit. He gives an original and vivid account of the work of the inspectors in all its drama and frustration. Ritter is the kind of single-minded and conscientious intelligence official who is not always appreciated by, or appreciative of, the higher command, with its wide and diverse problems. Indeed he is scornful of the crosscurrents, the compromises, and the pressures that often go into making high policy. He is impatient with the very idea that there are often hard truths which those higher up do not wish to hear. (I sympathize, having tried, unsuccessfully, in 1944, as an airborne forces intelligence officer, to alert the Allied command to the appalling risks of the forthcoming Market Garden operation in Holland.) During the Gulf War, while still working for US military intelligence, Ritter reported that the Desert Storm coalition’s air and ground effort had not destroyed a single Scud missile launcher. This news, while accurate, was not welcomed by the US military commanders. As the Cockburns comment, “Such independent thinking was not likely to enhance his career prospects.”

One subject about which Ritter’s book is uncharacteristically restrained is the perennial Iraqi accusation that UNSCOM was just a tool of United States intelligence, and the truth about the CIA’s relationship to the commission. Although there have been press reports about the CIA’s using UNSCOM for getting information about the Iraqi regime—information that went far beyond the concerns of arms control—there is very little in Ritter’s book about this crucial subject. He does refer to a CIA team, under a man he calls “Moe Dobbs,” which had been made available by the US to UNSCOM to act as inspectors. Dobbs and his people unaccountably left Iraq for good after a prolonged “standoff,” or blocking, by the Iraqis of UNSCOM’s attempt, in June 1996, to inspect Special Republican Guard facilities believed to conceal material and documents related to weapons of mass destruction. Chairman Ekeus was concerned that if this resistance to UNSCOM inspection were to be interpreted as a “material breach” of the Security Council’s resolutions, the result would be immediate United States air strikes. Therefore, to save the inspection process, he negotiated a compromise on the inspection of sensitive sites with the Iraqi foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, on June 21. This action was extremely unpopular with the United States, which seemed, at least, to prefer confrontation. “But there would be no war,” Ritter writes, “and the inspections would continue.”

Two weeks later an Iraqi official assigned to accompany Ritter asked him “why you are allowing yourself to be used by the CIA and Mossad for their purposes.” He told Ritter of the thwarted coup in June. The attempted UNSCOM inspection that resulted in a standoff had been timed, he said, to create a crisis that would justify the United States in launching cruise missiles in support of the coup attempt. Ritter thought about “Moe Dobbs,” and comments ruefully, “…I began to understand the Iraqi point of view.”

There seems to be more to the story than that, and most of it to Ritter’s credit. In a recent article in The New Yorker,3 Seymour M. Hersh gives a detailed account of both the CIA’s efforts to use UNSCOM and its antagonism to Ritter. In the spring of 1998 UNSCOM’s interception system began to tap into Saddam Hussein’s most closely protected communications and to expose Iraq’s weapon concealment program. The CIA, however, had a different agenda and evidently felt that UNSCOM, although it had initiated the intercepts, was in the way. The agency wanted to take over the processing of UNSCOM’s intercept intelligence. According to Hersh, the CIA persuaded Richard Butler, Ekeus’s successor, to cooperate and took over control of the intercepts in April 1998. (Butler disputes this account.)

Ritter and his colleagues felt threatened and betrayed by this move. (In his book, Ritter only says that the “enhanced intelligence system so painstakingly put together began to be dismantled piece by piece at the behest of my own country.”) Apart from the abuse of a bona fide international arrangement, the CIA’s intrusion made UNSCOM inspectors vulnerable to prosecution by Iraq on espionage charges. Far from being used for arms control, the intercepts were now being used by the US to concentrate on Saddam Hussein personally and on ways to get at him—not his missiles and warheads. Ritter apparently urged Butler to close the entire intercept operation down, but to no avail.

This was only the latest incident in a long history of CIA resentment of what the agency regarded as UNSCOM’s intrusion on its rightful turf. Ritter had tangled with the CIA on several occasions in the past. Hersh describes, for example, how Ritter had heard through UNSCOM’s sources in Israel that two shipments of Russian gyroscopes had reached Iraq through Jordan. Ritter wanted to arrange with the Jordanians to put beacons on some of the gyroscopes still in Amman so that they could be traced once they were in Iraq. The CIA then claimed that the gyroscopes should be under the control of the US and told the Jordanians that Ritter was unreliable.

The CIA even sent CIA teams into Iraq disguised as UNSCOM inspectors, who used UNSCOM equipment and office space. When Ritter learned of this scheme he formally notified Ekeus’s American deputy, Charles Duelfer, but not Ekeus himself. Hersh quotes Ritter as saying “I was walking the line between being a good American, which I place above all else, and doing my UNSCOM duties with full integrity.” Ritter acknowledges that this was not his finest moment. He realized that the CIA’s use of UNSCOM, if revealed, would discredit not only the commission itself, but also the entire process of international arms inspection and control.

The CIA has certainly contributed much to the demise of UNSCOM, to the discrediting of the United Nations, and to the current impasse in Iraq, which, Hersh concludes, “with no inspectors on the scene and American bombs falling daily in the no-fly zones, is a devastating setback for arms control….” It is hard to see how such grave damage can easily be undone. Perhaps one of the public apologies that are now in fashion, along with a clear declaration of a change in United States policy, might be a start. The strong possibility that all sorts of warlike material is now flowing into Iraq from Russia only adds to the ominous picture.

Ritter’s position first became publicly controversial during the chairmanship of Ekeus’s successor, Richard Butler, who took over in July 1997. After six years, there were growing doubts about UNSCOM’s mission. It had been widely assumed by UN members that when UNSCOM had satisfactorily completed its task, this would be the signal for lifting sanctions; but support for sanctions was eroding fast. Even the Pope was denouncing them. Ritter specialized in surprise inspections of particularly sensitive targets such as presidential buildings and ministries; he would then check the results against what was known of the Iraqi concealment program. UNSCOM had had some successes with this technique in previous years, but by 1997 the overall political situation surrounding UNSCOM was changing.

In March 1997, after Clinton’s second inauguration, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that the United States did not agree that sanctions would be lifted even if Iraq fulfilled its obligations concerning the disposal of weapons of mass destruction. For Saddam Hussein this meant that there was little to gain from cooperating in completing the work of UNSCOM. (In much the same way, the demand for “unconditional surrender” in 1943 deprived the Nazis of any motivation for not fighting on to the end.) The only means of punishing Iraq’s refusals to allow UNSCOM inspections was through US and British air strikes, which had less and less support in the Security Council and throughout the world. For Saddam Hussein therefore, a promising new long-term strategy could be to provoke a crisis with UNSCOM from time to time, risking periodic air strikes. He would thus promote the increasing isolation of the United States on the Iraqi question, as well as the demise of UNSCOM and the growing anti-sanction mood in many nations. If this strategy succeeded, Saddam Hussein would be able to keep whatever remained of his weapons of mass destruction program, and perhaps see the end of sanctions as well.

This was the background to Ritter’s efforts as director of concealment investigations and his eventual resignation in August 1998, which he describes in detail in the prologue to his book. By 1998 there were basically two people who could provoke a confrontation. One was Saddam Hussein with his on-again off-again cooperation with UNSCOM. The other was Ritter with his policy of surprise inspections of “sensitive” sites.

Ritter denounces the US administration, and especially Madeleine Albright, for undercutting his aggressive inspection policy and putting pressure on Richard Butler—who strongly denies his charges—to rein him in. His only hero in the US administration is UN ambassador Bill Richardson, who apparently supported Ritter’s damn-the-torpedoes approach. In his resignation statement Ritter said, “The illusion of arms control is more dangerous than no arms control at all,” and he would not be a party to such an illusion. For an arms control inspector this may well be a sound and courageous position, but it does not take into account the complexities of the relationship between the US and Saddam in 1998.

Other considerations certainly influenced the apparently inconsistent US policy of sometimes restraining UNSCOM and sometimes launching air strikes. The last of these, Desert Fox in December 1998, was justified by the US as a response to Iraq’s refusal of access by UNSCOM to eight “presidential sites.” It seems finally to have put an end to the practical working of UNSCOM, with both sides declaring victory.

If Saddam Hussein’s repeated provocations of a crisis were part of a new long-term policy of eroding international support of the United States, it was in the US interest not to fall in with it. (The Cockburns report that on August 5, 1998, when Saddam Hussein announced once again that Iraq was ending all cooperation with UNSCOM, Tariq Aziz was heard on an intercept angrily complaining to Russian Foreign Minister Primakov that “the Americans are not reacting” to the Iraqi move.) Thus, the perspective of a courageous international inspector and the policy of the government of a world power with multiple concerns and responsibilities inevitably came into conflict.

Both the Cockburns and Ritter are dismissive of the efforts of Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations, and particularly of his visit to Baghdad in February 1998 to arrange for the resumption of UNSCOM inspections and avoid an American air strike. (I must here declare an interest, having worked closely with five of Annan’s predecessors, all of whom at one time or another became scapegoats when their efforts to achieve peaceful solutions proved to be only temporarily effective.) Ritter even goes so far as to compare Annan with Neville Chamberlain and calls his chapter on the subject “Black Umbrella Days.” The banality and cheapness of this comparison do no credit either to Ritter’s knowledge of history or his appreciation of the enormous complexity of the Iraqi problem. It contrasts oddly with Ritter’s comment, quoted above, on a similar negotiation by Ekeus in 1996.

Ritter’s judgmental style is very much in evidence in his chapter on Kofi Annan, and it needs challenging. He says, for example, that he had a copy of “a confidential letter from Tariq Aziz to Kofi Annan, dated the same day as the Memorandum of Understanding, that constituted a secret protocol” to the effect that “the inspections of presidential sites would be a one-time event, after which the secretary general would seek to get the economic sanctions lifted.” This sounds like a dramatic disclosure but it is not. The truth is that after signing the memorandum, Tariq Aziz wrote a letter asking for further concessions. Annan gave copies of this letter to UNSCOM Chairman Butler and a few key governments. He then sent an answer rejecting Tariq Aziz’s requests. Not exactly a “secret protocol.” This kind of distortion undermines an author’s credibility.

Annan was trying to find a way to preserve UNSCOM and also to avoid a large-scale air strike which might well put an end to it altogether. In doing this he was very well aware that he would be a useful scapegoat when things went wrong again and when no one, in the United States or elsewhere, could come up with an effective way of dealing with Saddam Hussein. Incidentally Annan’s modest suggestion in 1998 that perhaps it was time to reevaluate the approaches to the Iraqi problem that had been taken so far—much criticized at the time—is exactly what Ritter suggests in his final chapter.

4.

Indeed, what is to be done about Saddam Hussein? Ritter ends on a surprisingly doveish note. UNSCOM is dead. There is no sustainable basis for another war against Iraq, so, in his view, “diplomatic engagement” seems the best option. He advocates the appointment of a special United States envoy who would engage in direct diplomacy with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. After all the huffing and puffing about Kofi Annan’s having given new legitimacy to Saddam Hussein by his visit to Baghdad in 1998, this is a little surprising. Ritter suggests that Bill Richardson, Richard Holbrooke, or George Mitchell take on this Herculean task. (They will all, I am sure, be duly grateful.)

The Cockburns insist that “the biggest mistake of all was to make the Iraqi people pay the price of besieging Saddam.” They propose no plausible new plan, but urge the importance of finding ways of limiting Saddam Hussein’s ability to do harm, as UNSCOM did in its heyday. They believe that Saddam’s downfall will eventually come at the hands of his own people, without outside intervention. What, if anything, the so-called international community should do in the meantime, especially with regard to the very real problem of weapons of mass destruction, they do not say.

Certainly there is no easy or obvious answer to the Iraqi problem, but it would also be a grave mistake to ignore a regime that is still so potentially dangerous. After reading the revealing and sometimes disturbing books by the Cockburns and Ritter, I found myself turning once again to the quiet voice of William R. Polk in his essay in these pages two months ago. After outlining various heroic, and impractical or unwise, options, Polk proposed a pragmatic course based on influencing Saddam Hussein’s conduct in ways that we can sustain, and on finding ways to make the motives that drive Saddam work to our advantage. These goals entail diplomatic efforts to stabilize the situation in the Gulf, especially with regard to Iran, Saddam’s most dreaded enemy; to limit arms shipments and especially the proliferation of nuclear weapons; and to embark on a long-term initiative to create a Middle Eastern zone free of weapons of mass destruction.

Another long-term aim should be to do what we can to encourage a democratic, open society in Iraq and, as Polk puts it, to try to “ameliorate the condition of the Iraqi people and to get them back on the road to economic development.” These are immensely difficult objectives that will require hard work, tact, skill, patience, and a willingness to compromise on all sides for many years to come. There is no certainty of success.

Not a very impressive or eye-catching policy, perhaps. But with the international heroic age and the New World Order of the early 1990s now only a distant, and rather hollow, memory, what better course is there?

  1. 1

    On this question, see my article “For a UN Volunteer Military Force,” The New York Review, June 10, 1993, and the comments that followed, The New York Review, June 24, 1993, and July 15, 1993.

  2. 2

    See his “Iraq: A New Leaf,” The New York Review, February 18, 1999.

  3. 3

    Saddam’s Best Friend: How the CIA made it a lot easier for the Iraqi leader to rearm,” The New Yorker, April 5, 1999.

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