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How Not to Deal with Bullies

We The Peoples: The Role of the United Nations in the Twenty-first Century

Report of the Secretary-General
United Nations Document A/54/2000, 80 pp., $10.00 (paper)

Dictators and warlords, whether in Africa or the Balkans, increasingly tend to believe that if they steadfastly resist them, UN interventions will eventually fail; the international community will become divided, grow tired, and give up. Too often they are right.

The arbiter of international peace and security is supposedly the United Nations Security Council, which is responsible for securing the peaceful settlement of international disputes and, if that fails, for taking action to deal with threats to the peace and acts of aggression. The Council is also the guarantor of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and other treaties relating to weapons of mass destruction.

Sometimes the Council’s action is blocked by the veto, or threatened veto, of one of the five permanent members, or simply by a general wish not to get involved too closely in a violent crisis. The secretary-general is constantly engaged in efforts to resolve all kinds of problems between states peacefully. If the Council does agree to take action against aggression, it proceeds in stages—first with demands to halt the aggression, then with a series of sanctions, and finally, if none of this has worked, with the use of force. Getting Iraq out of Kuwait was a rare example of the entire sequence being carried out. For most problems, however, non-forceful methods of peacekeeping are used.

Very few problems can be effectively resolved in a single action, but governments have come to dislike open-ended international commitments. There has therefore been pressure on the UN to withdraw from many of its recent interventions at the earliest possible moment, sometimes leaving behind an unresolved problem that continues to fester, and even reemerges once again as a threat to the peace. Angola, Haiti, and Cambodia are examples of this tendency, but potentially the most serious of all is Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The UN won the war to get Iraq out of Kuwait, but Saddam Hussein’s regime, with all its unpleasant habits, remains more or less intact.


The connection between the particular and the general, between trying to disarm an aggressor state and the validity of arms control treaties is vividly illustrated in a concluding passage from Richard Butler’s book, The Greatest Threat. Butler, a former Australian diplomat, has spent much of his professional life in the negotiation of treaties to control weapons of mass destruction; he explains that the deepest anxiety of states who have been unwilling to sign these treaties is that

the treaties could be cheated on from within and that the means of verification would neither deter nor detect such cheating.

Saddam Hussein’s dubious gift to this world has been to constitute the outstanding case for the possibility of cheating from within; in particular, having joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, he then proceeded to create atomic weapons clandestinely.

In July 1997, Butler succeeded Rolf Ekeus of Sweden as executive chairman of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), the group set up by the Security Council in 1991 to monitor the elimination of all Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, biological, and chemical. There had never been anything like it before. Butler, who had been Australia’s ambassador to the United Nations, arrived at UNSCOM exactly at the time when Russia, France, and China had concluded that the active effort to disarm Saddam Hussein should end and a diplomatic accommodation sought. Lifting sanctions on Iraq would, among other things, allow the regime to repay the enormous debts owed to these countries for the armaments and other services they supplied before 1990. Thus only two of the permanent members of the Security Council, Britain and the United States, were still prepared to maintain the pressure on Iraq, including the use of force if necessary, that had made UNSCOM’s inspections and other work possible.

The collapse of the Security Council’s unanimity on Iraq was a disaster for Butler. It allowed the Iraqis to drive a wedge between the Council and UNSCOM and to give the impression that UNSCOM was the problem, not Saddam Hussein’s determination to continue to develop weapons of mass destruction. It also gave currency to the constantly repeated Iraqi allegation that UNSCOM was deliberately blocking the repeal of sanctions that were causing great misery to the people of Iraq—although certainly not to Saddam Hussein and his cronies.

Another event at this time may well have seriously affected UNSCOM’s work. In March 1997, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced that the United States would not support lifting sanctions even if Iraq fulfilled its obligations to get rid of weapons of mass destruction. For Saddam Hussein this meant that there was little to gain from cooperating in the work of UNSCOM.

From the very beginning Iraq had played cat and mouse with UNSCOM—concealing, denying, confessing, obfuscating, and blocking. This had meant that UNSCOM investigations had had to be far more intrusive than was originally intended. By 1997, buoyed by the knowledge that three permanent members of the Security Council had broken ranks, Iraq, in the person of Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, was in a virtually continuous dispute with Butler over UNSCOM’s inspections, its tactics, and its insistence on inspecting eight allegedly sensitive “presidential sites.” These were places that the Iraqis claimed were harmless personal residences of Saddam Hussein, and therefore should be off limits. UNSCOM suspected they were being used to house biological and other weapons or records concerning them.

One of Aziz’s constant complaints was the predominance of United States inspectors in UNSCOM. To Butler, Iraq’s criticism seemed part of a campaign to sabotage UNSCOM, and he fought back gamely. He was particularly concerned that UNSCOM had not been able to establish whether Iraq had given up its biological weapons program. All this led to increasing tensions between Iraq and the United States and Britain, both of which began to build up their forces in the Gulf.

Renewed military action against Iraq in the form of US and British bombing seemed likely. In mid-February 1998, however, an inept televised presentation at Ohio State University by senior US officials, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, failed to persuade the audience that United States objectives in the Gulf were worth fighting for. Washington’s interest in a negotiated outcome was then revived, and the US, along with other Security Council members, agreed that Secretary-General Kofi Annan should try to negotiate with Baghdad. Butler appears to believe that this was a surrender to the Iraqis.

According to the Canadian analyst David Malone, Annan set off for Baghdad “fortified (and seriously constrained) by detailed guidance” from the permanent member ambassadors in New York on the main elements of “an acceptable agreement (the bottom line being defined by the US and UK positions).”1 Annan and the Iraqi president agreed on a “Memorandum of Understanding” that included several face-saving provisions for Saddam Hussein, among them an arrangement by which UNSCOM, on its inspections of the “presidential sites,” would be accompanied by “senior diplomats appointed by the secretary-general.” In the final paragraph the secretary-general undertook to bring to the attention of the Security Council the “paramount importance” to Iraq of the lifting of sanctions. But the memorandum also included Iraqi concessions that met all essential US and UK objectives, particularly a promise that UNSCOMcould inspect the “presidential sites.”

UNSCOM officials, accompanied by diplomats, visited the sites, and Butler, who at the time publicly supported the agreement, even said that “a new spirit of cooperation between the two sides” had emerged. But the Iraqis soon went back to their old ways, barring UNSCOM from places it wanted to investigate and proclaiming that only a single visit to the “presidential sites” would be allowed. This further discredited Annan in Washington, where the usual hawks had denounced his mission to Baghdad in the first place. Annan was particularly criticized for remarking about Saddam Hussein, “I think I can do business with him.”

Butler was also increasingly at odds with Annan, or, less precisely, with what he constantly refers to as Annan’s “senior staff.” He later criticized Annan’s Baghdad negotiations as giving the Iraqis what they wanted and weakening UNSCOM.2 After he retired in 1999 Butler even spoke of Annan’s “deeply alarming” behavior.3 In his book, however, he concentrates most of his disapproval on Annan’s “senior staff,” who, he believes, resented his independence.4

Over the summer of 1998 UNSCOM’s relations with Iraq steadily deteriorated. In August Saddam Hussein announced that both UNSCOM and the International Atomic Energy Agency had to stop inspections in Iraq and demanded changes in the commission’s makeup—fewer American and British members, and administration—presumably Butler himself.

An additional scourge for Butler at this time was the resignation of Scott Ritter, a former US Marine who was head of UNSCOM’s Concealment Unit, the team responsible for penetrating Iraq’s concealment tactics and detecting hidden weapons production facilities. Ritter did not go quietly. He claimed that ineffectual action on disarmament was worse than no action,5 that Butler took direction from the US government, and, worse still, that he had allowed UNSCOM to become the conduit for US intelligence-gathering in Iraq.

For a UN arms control mission, the accusation that Washington had been exploiting UNSCOM’s electronic eavesdropping for its own intelligence purposes could hardly have been more damaging, either to the integrity of UNSCOM itself or to the standing and acceptance of future UN arms control missions. Butler rejects Ritter’s accusations, but on the question of intelligence his response is far from reassuring. He writes defensively, and at some length, that UNSCOM relied on some forty member states, including the US, for intelligence assistance. “Is it possible,” he asks,

that some member state could have somehow taken advantage of UNSCOM personnel or facilities for its own intelligence gathering purposes? I can’t know for certain.

In the light of subsequent, well-documented investigative reporting on the matter,6 this sounds less than candid.

Whatever the exact truth about American use of UNSCOM’s eavesdropping, Ritter’s claims concerning American use of UNSCOM intelligence contributed to increasingly nasty criticism of UNSCOM in the Security Council. “Ritter,” Butler writes, “poured petrol on this fire, and Iraq gratefully warmed its hands over it.” On October 31, 1998, Iraq shut down all monitoring by UNSCOM as well as its disarmament work, and declared that there would be no more cooperation until the UN lifted the sanctions. The Security Council, divided as it was, condemned this action.

On November 10, on the advice of the US, Butler evacuated the UNSCOM group from Iraq. On November 14, in response to an appeal from Kofi Annan, Iraq more or less backed down on its demand that UNSCOM be expelled, but with many conditions. These included resolving “the question of Butler and the composition of the Special Commission and its practices….” After a somewhat farcical debate in the Security Council, during which the Iraqis and Russians cooperated in drafting further letters assuring future cooperation with UNSCOM, President Clinton reluctantly called off the bombers, which were already on their way to the Gulf, saying that if Iraq again reneged on its promise to cooperate with UNSCOM, there would be an immediate military response without any further discussion or warning.

  1. 1

    David Malone, Goodbye UNSCOM: A Sorry Tale of US/UN Relations. Security Dialogue, December 1999.

  2. 2

    The publisher’s publicity letter for reviewers of his book states that Butler’s “authority was undermined behind his back. Kofi Annan, in the name of diplomacy, agreed to [Saddam] Hussein’s outrageous demands, and then claimed victory.”

  3. 3

    Talk, September 1999, p. 198. Quoted by David Malone in Goodbye UNSCOM.

  4. 4

    Butler was directly responsible to the Security Council, although he was appointed by the secretary-general.

  5. 5

    The Butler/Ritter imbroglio continues. On July 3, 2000, The New York Times quoted Ritter as stating in a recent article that his team had effectively rid Iraq of dangerous weapons in 1997. Butler rejects this claim as “completely contrary to the advice that he repeatedly and robustly gave me when he was on the staff.” Butler gives a fuller assessment of the current status of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program, and of Ritter’s latest pronouncements, in “Guess Who’s Back,” The Washington Post, July 17, 2000.

  6. 6

    For example, Seymour M. Hersh, “Saddam’s Best Friend: How the CIA Made It a Lot Easier for the Iraqi Leader to Rearm,” The New Yorker, April 5, 1999. Hersh writes that, in April 1998, the CIA took over control of UNSCOM’s intercepts when they began to tap into Saddam Hussein’s most closely protected communications and to expose Iraq’s weapons concealment program. Butler says that “the US proposed a more elaborate method for monitoring Iraqi messages…. An initial installation was done of this technology; we quickly found that it didn’t work well, and I ordered it removed, which I’m sure didn’t boost my popularity in Washington.”

    Initially, the USadministration and some newspapers furiously criticized the secretary-general for a spokesman’s statement that, if true, the use of UNSCOM for US intelligence purposes would be extremely damaging to the UN. They went on to accuse Annan of undermining UNSCOMand sanctions. Later on, however, when it became clear that the allegations of Ritter and others were almost certainly true, the editorial line of leading US newspapers shifted to justifying, or deploring, the USpractice.

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