By Thane Peterson
In Disarming Iraq, the new book by former U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, the author seems a little like an elephant handler trying to deal with a bunch of unruly charges. He pokes and prods, formulating fleeting theories as he hops around trying to avoid being trampled. Trouble is, he never gets around to explaining why the big beasts all around him are jostling one another so violently.
As such, Blix can't offer a definitive answer to the $64,000 question: What happened to those pesky Iraqi weapons of mass destruction? Did they exist at all? And why, over the objection of friends and rivals alike, were the Americans and Brits so intent on invading Iraq when they apparently didn't exist? At best, he offers only tantalizing clues.
Blix, 75, a retired Swedish lawyer and diplomat, reluctantly come out of retirement to take on the unenviable task of heading the team of U.N. inspectors that scoured Iraq looking for evidence of weapons of mass destruction prior to the U.S.-led invasion a year ago. The elephants in the tale are President Bush, his Administration, and Saddam Hussein.
As you'll recall, U.S. officials repeatedly scoffed at Blix and the U.N. in the press for their inability to find any WMDs. The Iraqis deeply resented the inspections and vilified Blix. Readers get a feeling for the tenor of his dealings with the Iraqis when he notes that an Iraqi minister once told Blix that his tiny office at U.N. headquarters in New York "was not big enough to shout in."
This sort of understated irony is typical of the dour and circumspect Blix, who mostly avoids petty name-calling and score-settling. He explicitly refuses to say that Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair "spoke in bad faith" with their repeated assertions that Saddam posed an imminent threat of using WMD. But, he adds: "I am suggesting that it would not have taken much critical thinking on their part or the part of their close advisers to prevent statements that misled the public."
Yet, his harsh characterization of the U.S. position on WMD before the invasion provides a flash of insight that's hard to refute in retrospect. According to Blix, the Administration's view was quite clear: "The witches exist; you are appointed to deal with these witches; testing whether [or not] there are witches is only a dilution of the witch hunt."
How did the Bush Administration arrive at such a fixed position, especially given that it was sharply divided between hawks and relative moderates. According to an interview Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz gave to Vanity Fair magazine in mid-2003, the Administration chose to focus on the WMD issue as a justification for invading Iraq because it was "the one issue that everyone could agree on." (The really curious can read the transcript of the interview posted by the Defense Dept.)
And recent books by former Bush Administration Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke also suggest that President Bush was intent on ousting Saddam from his first days in office (though he hadn't bothered to share his views with voters before the election).
Blix adds another dimension to the story -- how willing the Administration was to ride roughshod over allies, the U.N., and, to a large degree, the truth of what was really known about Iraqi WMDs in pursuit of its goals. In his telling, the hawkish agenda was mainly played out in the press. He describes U.S. officials -- notably National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice and even the President himself -- as perfectly reasonable, supportive, and professional in private dealings with him. But he says their messages were repeatedly undercut by news stories -- many based on anonymous Administration sources -- in publications such as The Times of London, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.
Blix lays part of the blame for the White House's fervent belief in the continued existence of Iraqi WMD on intelligence failures, which he describes as "monumental." But he mainly fingers the arrogance and apparent resolve of Administration hawks -- including Vice-President Dick Cheney, Wolfowitz and his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and weapons inspector David Kay -- to ignore evidence that didn't support their policy objectives.
He describes Cheney as "a solid, self-confident -- even overconfident -- chief executive" who "did most of the talking" during a meeting in October 2002. Blix was taken aback when Cheney bluntly said the U.S. was "ready to discredit inspections in favor of disarmament."
In Blix's telling, this process of "discrediting" started long before his meeting with Cheney. He cites an April 16, 2002, Washington Post story in which Rumsfeld contended that weapons inspectors are mainly successful when they have tips from defectors as to where to look (something Blix says isn't true). The same article revealed that Wolfowitz had asked the CIA to investigate Blix's background.
By November, The New York Times was reporting -- erroneously, Blix says -- that U.N. inspectors planned to "force an early test of Saddam's intentions by demanding a comprehensive list of weapons sites." Blix speculates that the story may have been prompted by Administration officials to provoke the Iraqis into war.
Blix speaks admiringly of Rice, but says the tenor of his private meetings with her were repeatedly distorted in press accounts. In January, 2003, The Washington Post reported that Rice flew to New York to "press" Blix to take a critical assessment of Iraq in a report he was about to make to the U.N. Security Council. He says she didn't press him to do anything. Based on details in the article, Blix later concluded that it was probably leaked in Washington before Rice even boarded the plane.
In the Administration's defense, Blix notes that the Americans weren't alone in suspecting Iraq was hiding WMD. He says before the invasion, he got the impression that the German, French, and "most other" governments were also "convinced that Iraq retained weapons of mass destruction."
MISSING IN ACTION.
Blix admits that his own "gut feeling" was that they were right -- a perception that gives a sliver of credence still to claims by Rumsfeld that evidence of WMD development still may be discovered. Still, Blix faults the Administration for refusing to entertain doubts and policy alternatives other than total submission by Iraq or war.
Where did all of Iraq's lethal weapons go? Blix's theory is that most of them were discovered and destroyed by weapons inspectors and by Hussein Kamel, Saddam's son-in-law, in the early 1990s, after the Gulf War. The Iraqis didn't keep adequate records and probably were incapable of proving what they had done.
So why did they resist inspections and not do more to prove they retained no dangerous weapons? Blix suspects it was mainly out of pride and Saddam's paranoia about showing weakness. In the end, these aren't very satisfying theories -- but they may turn out to be as good as any.
Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht