WASHINGTON — If Saddam Hussein had few or no weapons of mass destruction, why did he act as if he possessed arsenals of them? Why did Iraqis harass U.N. inspectors, bar their entry into certain buildings and sneak trucks out the back gates of compounds if there was nothing to hide?
Analysts have been quick to suggest reasons. A prevailing view is machismo -- Hussein was trying to conceal his weakness, not his strength. Some experts, such as former weapons inspector David Kay, have said that scientists, seeking to enrich themselves with funds for phony projects, hoodwinked Hussein, not the inspectors.
But one factor, just as important as the others, has been overlooked. U.N. inspections were undercut from the start by U.S. policy.
American officials boasted continually that the United States would never allow the United Nations to lift economic sanctions, imposed after the Persian Gulf War, as long as Hussein remained in power. As a result, Hussein never had much incentive to cooperate with the inspectors. If the U.S. carried out its threat, sanctions would remain no matter what he did.
The United States corrupted the process of inspection.
Barely two months after the Gulf War ended in 1991, deputy national security advisor Robert M. Gates, speaking on behalf of the George H.W. Bush administration, told the American Newspaper Publishers Assn. that "Saddam is discredited and cannot be redeemed. His leadership will never be accepted by the world community and, therefore, Iraqis will pay the price while he remains in office. All possible sanctions will be maintained until he is gone. Any easing of sanctions will be considered only when there is a new government."
The speech surprised and upset the mission of U.S. Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering at the U.N. He had steered through the Security Council the war-ending resolution, a document so long that ambassadors, borrowing a favorite phrase of Hussein's, dubbed it "the mother of all resolutions." The resolution contained no demand that Iraq rid itself of Hussein. Instead, its key provisions set up a system of U.N. inspections, demanded the elimination of all Iraqi WMD and pledged to keep sanctions in place until inspectors verified this outcome. Sanctions prohibited any country from buying Iraqi oil and other products; Iraq could purchase only medicine and food abroad.
"The United States has been punctilious about staying within the resolutions up to now," a disappointed aide to Pickering told me after hearing about the Gates threat. "In general, it [the threat] goes beyond the resolution."
The Clinton administration continued the policy in a somewhat different form. As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in a speech at Georgetown University in 1997: "We do not agree with nations who argue that if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted. Our view, which is unshakeable, is that Iraq must prove its peaceful intentions. It can only do that by complying with all the Security Council resolutions to which it is subject. Is it possible to conceive of such a government under Saddam Hussein? ... The evidence is overwhelming that Saddam Hussein's intentions will never be peaceful."
Albright's speech should not have been a surprise. It repeated a policy she had spelled out when she was U.N. ambassador earlier in the Clinton administration. Her reference to "all the Security Council resolutions" recalled that the U.N., aside from ordering the elimination of WMD, had demanded that Iraq accept an Iraq-Kuwait boundary worked out by a demarcation commission, account for all missing Kuwaitis and pay compensation to all nations and individuals financially hurt by the war. By linking the lifting of sanctions to all these resolutions, the Clinton administration was placing what it hoped was an impossible burden on Hussein, or at least one that he would regard as intolerable. In her recently published memoirs, Albright described the policy as only "a slightly different approach" from that of the first Bush administration.
Despite this, Richard Butler, the Australian diplomat who led the U.N. inspectors, was surprised by Albright's Georgetown speech. In "The Greatest Threat," his book about dealing with the Iraqis, he insisted that Hussein "could [have achieved] sanctions relief at any time by giving up his weapons." Though the Albright speech, in Butler's view, "somewhat muddied" the issue of sanctions, he didn't regard it as a definitive statement of U.S. policy.