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Arms and the inspector

Disarming Iraq; Hans Blix; Pantheon: 304 pp., $24

March 14, 2004|Michael Ignatieff | Michael Ignatieff is the author of many books, including "Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond," "Blood and Belonging" and the forthcoming "The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror." He teaches human rights at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Hans Blix was the kind of United Nations diplomat Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald L. Rumsfeld loved to hate. As the head of the U.N. weapons inspectors, he was the cautious Swede who refused to either confirm or deny that there were weapons of mass destruction in the frantic months leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. When Blix said the weapons hadn't turned up, Rumsfeld quipped, "The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence." Blix stood his ground insisting that the "absence of evidence" should not be spun into proof of concealment. Cheney took Blix's refusal to support the American line as proof of what he had been saying all along, that it was a mistake for the United States to go for inspections in the first place.

Now that U.S. weapons inspector David Kay and the American inspection teams have also failed to find any evidence of such weapons, Blix, in retirement in Sweden, has published a memoir that says, in effect, "I told you so." Were it not so even-tempered, judicious and ironic in tone, "Disarming Iraq" could be subtitled "Blix's Revenge."

A 304-page book about weapons inspections, written by a Swedish septuagenarian, doesn't sound like an inviting prospect, but it turns out to be sharp and interesting throughout. True, you will not find cameo sketches of national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, and you won't learn any new gossip about the high and mighty, but the story Blix has to tell is amazing. You will come away ever more indignant that the world's most powerful intelligence services allowed their political bosses to turn a distant threat into an imminent danger. The book may also leave you angry at the way in which the administration trashed Blix and his inspectors. "Blix Tricks Irk U.S." was only the most inventive of the headlines of the stories the administration leaked to undermine his efforts. In the end, not only had the much-maligned inspectors destroyed a lot of Saddam's inventory between 1991 and 1996, but when they returned in 2002, they quickly established a more accurate list of what remained than the CIA had.

The real question about U.N. weapons inspections is not whether they work, but when to back them up with a credible threat of force if inspectors encounter resistance or obstruction. On this matter, blanket denunciations of the "axis of evil" only confuse matters. One size will not fit all. What worked in Iraq will not work in North Korea. Trying the same tactics with Iran would court disaster.

Although Blix's book will be ransacked by both sides in the still-bitter argument about the war, he makes a case that is too complex to pigeonhole into either side of the debate. He refuses to accuse President Bush or Prime Minister Tony Blair of deliberately lying or even of bad faith since, like them, he shared the widely held view in 2002 that Saddam had something to hide. He grants, as many opponents of the war do not, that without deployment of U.S. forces, "Iraq would probably not have accepted a resumption of inspections." He also disagrees that the "U.S. wanted the inspections to fail," arguing, on the contrary, that the administration "urged us to expand them very fast and to conduct them 'aggressively.' " Nor does he think the administration planned the war after Sept. 11 and used the weapons issue as a pretext.

Where Blix faults the administration is on timing. If the inspectors had been given more time -- until July 2003 -- and had continued to meet resistance, Blix is reasonably sure the Security Council would have authorized armed action, and the United States would have gone to war with the world on its side. Bush thus failed to rein in the military rush to war until the diplomatic offensive and the inspections process had created a global consensus behind American action.

Blair failed likewise: Knowing that more time was needed to build diplomatic support, he buckled and let the American military timetable drive his country into war. Blix does not speculate on the vexed question of whether the U.S. would have called off the invasion if the inspectors had pronounced Iraq weapons-free in July 2003, his preferred date for winding up the inspections. There remains the suspicion that Bush and Blair would not even have taken yes for an answer, so fixed were they on regime change.

Blix's proudest claim in this memoir is that he reestablished the independence of his inspectors from the U.S. and British intelligence services. The one serious criticism to make of his account is that he doesn't seem aware of the price to be paid for keeping at arm's length from the spooks. His independence left him baffled at what the Americans and British knew about Hussein's programs.

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