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Review of Disarming Iraq by Hans Blix
Review by Bob Chira

Disarming IraqDisarming Iraq. By Hans Blix. (Pantheon Books, New York 2004, Pp. 304, hardcover, $24.)

Hans Blix, the former chief of the United Nation’s chemical and biological weapons inspection agency charged with verifying the disarmament of Iraq, completed this book in early 2004 when it was clear that Iraq had no “stockpiles” of weapons of mass destruction (“WMD”). That fact no doubt reinforced his predilection to avoid force and influenced his main thesis that the war to disarm Iraq of such supposed weapons could have been avoided if only the inspection process had been allowed to continue for a few more months. He writes:

“Without a military buildup by the U.S. in the summer of 2002, Iraq would probably not have accepted a resumption of inspections. However, if we assume this buildup and the return of the inspectors, it is conceivable that a moderate continued buildup, continued inspections with no denial of access, and a guarantee of large-scale interviews with technical people in Iraq could have shown that there were no weapons of mass destruction. It would surely have been difficult to persuade both inspectors and the world, let alone the U.S., but if there had not been hopeful results by, say July 2003, it seems likely that a majority of the Security Council might have been ready to authorize armed action, which could have started with UN legitimacy after the summer heat and revealed that there were no weapons.”

There are many conditions and assumptions in Blix’s statement of what might have been possible (“if we assume; …it is conceivable…it seems likely…a majority in the Security Council…might have been ready”). As to his main thesis, however, Blix believes that by July 2003 a consensus would have existed amongst a “majority” in the Security Council to take armed action to disarm Iraq if it had failed by then to fully cooperate substantively with the inspectors and persuaded the Council it had no WMD.

Blix in Iraq

Blix, however, does not specify if that “majority” consensus would have included all five of the Council’s permanent members (the “P-5”) or just a preponderance of its 15 members containing 10 states of lesser weight (including Angola, Cameroon and Senegal). The P-5 had been divided in their views about disarming Iraq for a long time. Russia, for example, had wanted to lift sanctions by the late 1990’s; it was opposed to the use of force then and in 2003; France was against a deadline for a decision on using force; it wanted the inspection process to continue without “automaticity;” any such decision was to be made only after further consultations and only unanimously by the P-5 members. China was quiet about its position but probably would have abstained in any final showdown to use force to avoid controversy. Among the P-5, that left the U.S. and UK standing alone in their determination to force the issue to a final reckoning both at the beginning of the Council’s latest deliberations in 2002 and at the end of the process in March 2003 when they acted allegedly to enforce Iraqi compliance with prior UN resolutions.Without a realistic chance for achieving unanimity among the P-5, it can be argued that Blix’s hope for consensus and thus UN “legitimacy” was illusory. If Blix is referring to a majority of the Council’s 15 member as the basis for such “legitimacy,” while that may have been possible, dissenting P-5 members and others would have contended that the favorable vote of a majority of lesser states but not unanimity amongst the P-5 lacked sufficient authority.

Blix also notes the fact that little time was given to the inspectors to complete their work in view of the likely start of a military offensive timed for the spring of 2003. Under those circumstances, he notes it was imperative that Iraq give them immediate, proactive and substantive cooperation, including facilitating “large scale interviews with technical people in Iraq.” By the time war broke out only approximately seven Iraqi technocrats had been interviewed, none without Iraqi “minders” along. Blix thought the U.S. idea of interviewing the few that Iraq made available outside the country was impractical: they would not leave or testify freely and risk harm to their families left behind. Blix admits that only after the US and UK toppled the regime did honest interviews take place. Thus, he concedes that while Iraq was increasingly cooperating on process and procedure, it had not acted with sufficient alacrity nor cooperated on substance to produce evidence and testimony of their destruction of WMD.

Blix’s view of the efficacy of the military buildup is somewhat circular: he notes that without a buildup of military forces in the area by the U.S. and UK from the summer of 2002 on there would probably not have been a resumption of inspections at all; but then suggests that a “moderate” build up would have been sufficient and allowed for delay in using force should circumstances warrant it. That appears unrealistic given the “cat and mouse” game the Saddam Hussein regime played with inspectors in the 1990’s, its refusal to allow them access to certain sites at that time, and its decision to stop cooperating altogether with them in 1998. Most observers believe that the more realistic assumption was that only the threat of massive military force had a chance to persuade Iraq’s regime to cooperate on substance.

Blix’s Volvo at a rally in 1978 driven by Hans or son Fredrik.

One must question whether there was anything Blix and his inspectors could have done to prevent war once massive military forces were in place; indeed, at that point, it became nearly impossible for the U.S. and UK to back down especially when Iraq had not provided evidence of the destruction of their WMD stockpiles. Whether the U.S. and UK had already agreed upon armed action expecting the UN inspection regime to fail has been posited by many commentators, but Blix does not subscribe to the thesis that he was given a “mission impossible.” Although there are passages in the book critical of the U.S. and U.K. position , he mainly credits the U.S. and UK with good faith in both pursuing the UN inspection process for several months at least and in believing the Iraqi regime possessed WMD. He also agrees that Iraq did not act to dispel reasonable doubts when it re-submitted the same 12,000 pages for its initial declaration or when it made further protestations that it had disposed of all of its WMD stockpiles.Just as Blix outlines what the U.S. and UK could have done to avoid war by continuing with the inspection process, he also examines to a limited degree what Iraq could have done. Blix has no answers to why Iraq, having, as it turns out, no stockpiles of WMD, failed to act in a timely fashion to demonstrate that fact. Blix has some sympathy for the Iraqis whose tasks were nearly impossible: they were being asked to prove the WMD they once had no longer existed without having records to prove their destruction: he quips, “the absence of evidence is not evidence of the absence of WMD.” But, Iraq could have done what Libya did some nine months later: invite the inspectors in to examine all of its facilities, give them complete access to all personnel previously involved in prohibited activities, and undertake to destroy whatever remaining programs, material and means to deliver WMD still existed, all under U.N. supervision and continued monitoring. [Historians will study why the Saddam Hussein regime did not act in that manner to save itself from inevitable defeat by the world’s greatest armed forces. One argument with some credence is that the regime feared losing power internally if it admitted it lacked WMD and destroyed its capability to make them in the future since it had used them on the Kurds; thus, their existence and possible use again would help quell any potential rebellion by the Kurds or the majority Shi’a populace.]

Blix notes that he and nearly every national intelligence agency believed at the time that Iraq had probably retained its admitted prior stockpiles of WMD but as time passed and none could be located he began to have doubts that any significant amounts of prohibited materials and missiles existed. Blix recognizes it was difficult for Iraq to prove it had no WMD, particularly when it had no documents to prove the destruction of them, but, nevertheless, he recognizes that it failed to resolve many long standing issues. Thus, on March 6, 2003, just days before the war started, Blix presented to the Security Council a 173 page report on the “Unresolved Disarmament Issues: Iraq’s Proscribed Weapons Programmes” in which he laid out, page after page, all of the open questions about pre-existing chemical and biological weapons, agents and missiles to deliver them that needed to be resolved. That there were such unresolved issues does not mean, Blix notes, that Iraq had in fact retained its WMD; it just meant that they had not provided the UN with sufficient evidence of their destruction if that was the case. Because Iraq had on prior occasions hidden proscribed WMD and programs from UN inspectors, there was little confidence placed by Blix, his staff or Council members in Iraqi declarations that it had none left and all had been previously destroyed. Blix does not deal forthrightly enough with the fact that Iraq had hidden a crash resumption of its nuclear program in the early 1990’s from the nuclear inspection agency which Blix headed up from 1991 to about 1997; nor does he fully acknowledge that it took the defection of Saddam Hussein’s son in law, Hussein Kemal, in 1995, to reveal that fact which in turn led Iraq to turn over new documentary evidence of its nuclear program that it had previously withheld from the inspectors.

Blix ends his book with a plea for the future use of UN inspectors as a peaceful way to resolve similar crises. He notes that its budget was only $80 million while the armed force used to allegedly disarm Iraq has cost more than $80 billion thus far, not to mention the substantial loss of life to both Iraqis and U.S. led coalition forces. He also notes that as international civil servants the inspectors provide more dispassionate analysis than governmental intelligence agencies which are prone to exaggerate threats so as to cover all possibilities; and that the UN’s personnel are on the ground and can learn more actual facts than satellite and wire intercepts used by national government agencies. In view of the fact that no stockpiles of WMD have in fact been found in Iraq, and that most of the intelligence of national governments was sure of their existence, his plea for using UN inspectors makes sense, but as he notes they cannot be expected to find hidden WMD, only to inspect sites, documents and materials to make WMD made available to them and then to oversee their destruction.

Finally, it should be noted that Blix’s book is essentially a detailed and legalistic account of his involvement with several UN agencies and the issue of “disarming Iraq” from 1991 to the outbreak of war in March 2003. It is not about the efforts of the U.S. and UK to cause a “regime change.” However, for a more complete understanding of the resulting conflict, one must assess the place of “regime change” in the equation that led to war.

This was the basic policy of the US beginning in the prior Clinton administration and supported by Tony Blair’s UK government. It was those two leaders who first advocated “regime change” rather than waiting for the threat of WMD and their possible dissemination to rogue states or terrorists to materialize. It was they who authorized “Operation Desert Fox” at Christmas in 1998, a missile attack against Baghdad and alleged facilities where WMD were stored. It was Clinton’s Secretary of Defense (William Cohen) who produced a bag of flour on TV and asserted that if it were anthrax, which Iraq had produced in the past, it would kill multitudes. It was the US Congress that overwhelmingly passed the “Iraqi Liberation Act” in 1998 authorizing the Clinton administration to pursue a “regime change” in Iraq. Thus, while the Bush Team is usually blamed for using the WMD argument as a pretext for going to war to replace Saddam Hussein’s regime, that policy, in fact, preceded this administration. It forcefully implemented the prior adopted policy by going to full scale operations instead of launching occasional missile attacks.

The Bush administration, however, changed its rhetoric from “regime change” to the threat from WMD. It then emphasized that theme to both domestic and international audiences since it realized that the objective of “regime change” would not command as much public support as the argument, particularly after the trauma of 9/11, that Iraq had WMD and could pass them along to terrorists and rogue states. Moreover, there is no legal justification for armed intervention to change the internal regime of a state. Thus, the Iraqi regime had to be shown to pose a threat to its neighbors and international peace and security under the UN Charter to warrant Security Council intervention. This was not a particularly credible argument since there was scant evidence that Iraq, after being evicted from Kuwait by UN sanctioned armed forces in the first Gulf War, posed any such threat. Indeed, since that calamitous foray in 1991, and its prior 1980’s war with Iran, it had been quiescent. Thus, although the U.S. later stated that its planes were shot at in the north and south “no fly” zones set up to monitor Iraq after the Gulf War and prevent it from suppressing its Kurdish or Shi’a population, not one US airman was hurt nor one plane downed in the ensuing 12 year period. Nor had Iraq invaded or threatened any of its neighbors; nor had it cooperated with any radical Islamic terrorists such as Osama bin Laden and al Quaeda; and, there simply was no evidence of any Iraqi link to the terrorism of 9/11. Indeed, as a secular socialistic regime, Iraq had little in common with radical Islam. Nevertheless, the US and UK made the WMD argument and Iraq’s alleged link to terrorists its rationale for war. It muted its underlying basic policy of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and installing a new regime more friendly to its interests in the Middle East. That re-surfaced as its main rationale once again only after no stockpiles of WMD were found.

Blix, a lawyer from Sweden who had studied in the US, began his career in the Swedish Foreign Service. It included a long stint as head of its mission to the UN. Since 1981 when he joined the U.N. as head of its nuclear disarmament agency, he has been at the center of disarmament issues and the later crises in the UN Security Council over Iraq. While this book explains what happened in that case, his insights about how the Security Council’s role can be advanced in future crises would be useful. For example, should unanimity be required for all enforcement actions? Should the Council be expanded to nine members with states such as India, Japan and Germany included? Should a two thirds or even higher vote, but not unanimity, of such an expanded Council be sufficient to authorize armed force? Should the Council have a standing military force under a U.N. command for rapid deployment to enforce its mandates?


Robert Chira practices law in New York City. He has been interested in foreign policy issues since working as a student intern in the State Department for three successive summers. He is a graduate of Harvard, the London School of Economics and Columbia Law School.


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