Here’s a nifty piece of timing: “The Age of Deception,” a memoir by Mohamed ElBaradei, has arrived in bookstores at the moment when its author is seeking to replace Egypt’s toppled president, Hosni Mubarak.
ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency he directed for 12 years shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. His stewardship of this arm of the United Nations coincided with nuclear showdowns in Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Syria.
In “The Age of Deception,” we learn a lot about the ruses that these governments used to conceal illicit nuclear programs. We get a look at backroom tensions between the agency and Western leaders as well as insights into the international nuclear bazaar run by the father of the Pakistani atomic bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan.
What we learn most about, however, is ElBaradei himself. His political ambitions, which predate the recent turmoil in his homeland, are prominently on display. The tone is anti-Western throughout.
Sometimes he has a point. The failure of weapons of mass destruction to materialize in Iraq is an easy target, as is the lack of progress nuclear powers have made on disarmament. He’s also right that the U.S. has often exhibited a lack of cultural sensitivity in its dealings with the Mideast.
Bashing the U.S.
Yet with ElBaradei things go further. The chief impediment to stopping nuclear proliferation, he repeatedly suggests, isn’t so much the rogue regimes of Iran, North Korea, Syria or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It’s the U.S.
“You seem to be picking on us more than you pick on the imams,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice complained, and she was right.
It’s on Iran that ElBaradei’s partiality emerges most clearly. During tortuous negotiations with Tehran, the U.S. has been duplicitous, concealed intelligence and shown rank stupidity, he says. Not once does he entertain the possibility that Tehran might be developing a nuclear bomb and playing for time while it gets it.
His is a crazy, weasel-worded logic. After stating that the Iranians have been guilty of systematic lying and deception, he insists there’s no evidence that they want the bomb. He even comes close to exonerating the regime’s mendacity: Lying for the right cause can be acceptable in Shiite theology, he says, and U.S. attempts to isolate the country gave the Iranians little alternative. Especially since the Tehran leadership, like their American counterparts, faced pressure from domestic hard-liners.
Spurious parallels between a democracy and a theocratic dictatorship make ElBaradei sound like a slippery lawyer -- and his career did indeed begin at the bar. If Iran comes up with a nuclear weapon, I can imagine him rationalizing that, too. Unless, of course, he becomes president of Egypt, in which case he will face pressures to develop a bomb of his own. The historical irony would be succulent.
It isn’t just Iran. In discussing the 2007 bombing of a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria, ElBaradei is hard on Israel and the U.S., but softer on Syria itself. Even Saddam Hussein’s lies about his nuclear program before his invasion of Kuwait are implicitly excused, by reference to Israel’s alleged possession of atomic weapons.
As for Iraq’s hindrance of UN inspectors during the lead-up to the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, ElBaradei offers this almost comic understatement: “The Iraqis could have acted faster and shown more transparency.”
Elsewhere, the book describes frictions and rivalries with his colleagues, notably Hans Blix, the former UN chief weapons inspector. Pretty well everyone except ElBaradei, we are told, got things wrong.
Along with self-justification, we get a helping of self-aggrandizement. Hobnobbing with presidents -- ElBaradei met George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, Vladimir Putin -- he presents himself as an international statesman, one given to questionable judgments and pontificating beyond his nuclear brief. After meeting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he describes the Iranian leader as “courteous and reasonable,” in contrast to his “demonization” in the West.
Egyptian voters will make of ElBaradei what they will. Westerners will ask what they should expect if he rises to power in Egypt. On the evidence of this book, we can anticipate anti-Americanism, a tougher line on Israel, a rapprochement with Iran and Syria, wheeling and dealing on a grand scale, a touchy vanity, and a lack of the steel and charisma needed to hold his fractious country together.
No wonder the Muslim Brotherhood has said in the past that it would support him.
“The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times” is from Metropolitan in the U.S. and from Bloomsbury in the U.K. (322 pages, $27, 20 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(George Walden, a former U.K. diplomat and member of Parliament, is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)