Hans the Timid

The Wall Street Journal
November 26, 2002, p. A24.

Hans Blix, by now a household name from New York to New Delhi, begins his fateful mission this week: rooting out Saddam Hussein’s hidden programs for making nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Everyone should wish the chief U.N. weapons inspector and his colleagues success, but the odds are against it. Instead of disarmament, we are likely to get a prolonged process of paper pushing.

The main concern is Mr. Blix himself. The 74-year-old Swede was not the top choice for the job. The United States backed Rolf Ekeus, the highly effective leader of the U.N. Special Commission that inspected Iraq in the 1990s. But Iraq’s champions in the U.N. Security Council, Russia and France, vetoed Mr. Ekeus as too aggressive. They put up Mr. Blix instead. After ineffectual opposition from the Clinton administration, Mr. Blix took over the present U.N. inspection organization (called UNMOVIC) in January 2000.

Nuclear Negligence

There is a reason why Iraq’s friends preferred Mr. Blix. He already had an unsurpassed record of failure in dealing with Saddam Hussein. From 1981 to 1997, Mr. Blix headed the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. body responsible for inspecting nuclear sites around the world – including Iraq’s – to make sure they are not cranking out atomic bombs. As late as 1990, the same year Iraq invaded Kuwait, Mr. Blix’s inspectors rated Iraq’s cooperation as “exemplary.” But all the while Saddam was running a vast A-bomb program under their very noses. Iraq produced both plutonium and enriched uranium for nuclear weapons in clear violation of the IAEA’s rules. Some of the work went on at the same places that were being inspected, and was hidden with the help of an Iraqi official who was himself a former IAEA inspector. (His knowledge of inspection techniques helped dupe his former colleagues). Had the Gulf War not intervened, Iraq might have made its first bomb without anyone being the wiser.

Mr. Blix’s spokesman at UNMOVIC has tried to explain this embarrassment by claiming that Mr. Blix had only limited powers under the IAEA’s rules. But the facts are otherwise. Mr. Blix had a lot of discretion, and he always used it to reduce the effectiveness of inspections.

For example, Iraq possessed more than 45 kilograms of highly enriched uranium before the Gulf War, far more than the 25 kilograms that the IAEA officially said was enough to make an atomic bomb. Iraq had imported the uranium from Russia and France as reactor fuel, but it would work in a bomb just as well. Now, when a country like Iraq has more than a bomb’s worth of weapon-usable uranium, the IAEA is supposed to inspect it every three weeks, because that is all the time it is supposed to take to fashion it into a warhead. Under Mr. Blix, however, the IAEA was inspecting it only every six months. Why? Because the uranium was stored in a number of separate “material balance areas” (where the inspectors went to measure it) and there was less than a bomb’s worth in each!

The areas were only a mile or so apart, so the whole thing was absurd. The stuff could be assembled in days, if not hours. But rather than annoy the Iraqis with frequent inspections, Mr. Blix chose the head-in-the-sand approach – which the Iraqis were quick to exploit. Immediately after the last six-month inspection before the Gulf War, they diverted the uranium to a crash nuclear weapon effort, which only the war prevented from succeeding.

Mr. Blix maintained this user-friendly stance even after the war. In May 1991, at the close of the first U.N. inspection, Iraq had accounted for the 45 kilograms of uranium it had imported, so Mr. Blix wanted to issue a report saying that everything was fine. But a minority of the inspection team wouldn’t go along. They just couldn’t understand why the Iraqis had torn out the foundations of bombed-out buildings as far as several meters down, while leaving other buildings untouched. They suspected that by removing the floors, Iraq had concealed evidence that the buildings had been used to process uranium domestically. Mr. Blix had no sympathy for such suspicions; he was determined to issue the report anyway. The minority (two American weapon experts) nevertheless held the report up until an Iraqi defector revealed a vast home-grown uranium processing program – saving Mr. Blix from humiliation.

Former leaders of the U.N. Special Commission say that Mr. Blix continued to accommodate the Iraqis during the 1990s. On repeated occasions, the commission had to use its power to designate sites for inspection in Iraq over Mr. Blix’s opposition. He objected on the ground that the sites were sensitive, and the inspections risked being too confrontational.

Nor does he seem to relish the new powers he received this month from the unanimous passage of U.N. Resolution 1441. U.N. inspectors can now demand that Iraqi scientists be made available for interviews outside the country, and that they be allowed to bring their families. There the scientists could tell the truth without retaliation. This technique could unmask Saddam’s weapons in a hurry. But Mr. Blix is not interested. He has dismissed this avenue as having “practical difficulties.”

Why such curious behavior? Because Mr. Blix faces a dilemma. The only way he can disarm Iraq is if Saddam Hussein decides to fess up and admit what he has. Saddam might do that if he decides that keeping his head is more important than keeping his weapons. Then inspections could work. They are, after all, designed to verify disarmament, not produce it.

If Saddam doesn’t fess up, Mr. Blix has a losing hand. If he is aggressive, and proves Saddam is lying, it will show noncooperation, just what the Pentagon is waiting for. Mr. Blix will then be the chump in the play – the first U.N. bureaucrat to hand the world a war.

Scurrying Sideways

To avoid that, Mr. Blix has an incentive to scurry sideways, like a crab, shunning confrontation. He has, in fact, already taken that direction. According to his press spokesman in Baghdad, the inspectors have no immediate plans to pressure Saddam Hussein. Instead, they plan to occupy themselves “for some time” at sites already visited by earlier groups of inspectors, where they will check on things expected to be there. With hundreds of sites and pieces of equipment already listed in their files, this process could keep the paper flowing for the better part of a year.

But there would be no disarmament. Inspections are not an end in themselves. They are supposed to implement the latest U.N. resolution which demands that Iraq disclose and surrender any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or face “serious consequences.”

If the inspectors continue as they have begun, Saddam will never be forced to give up his mass destruction arsenal – which every Western intelligence service believes he has – because Mr. Blix will never uncover what is hidden. The world should demand that Mr. Blix confront Saddam now with the best evidence the West can muster, and insist on explanations. Unless he does so, Mr. Blix will have the distinction of missing the Iraqi bomb before the Gulf War, missing it afterward, and now missing it once again.

Mr. Milhollin directs the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington, D.C.