A Convoluted Book

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Disarming Iraq, Hans Blix, 304 pages, Pantheon Books, New York, 2004.

Convoluted. That's the word that came to my mind after finishing this enlightening yet strongly opinionated account written by the high-profile man who was in charge of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and then the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), the two United Nations commissions responsible for divesting Iraq of illegal nuclear, chemical, germ and radiological armaments. On the one hand, Blix presents many unknown details regarding the twelve-year-long international efforts to ensure that Iraq was free of weapons of mass destruction and the Iraqi government's varying degrees of cooperation with those efforts, especially in the months prior to the US-led invasion of that country. But on the other hand, Blix — both as an inspector and in the book — permits his own bias to cloud his judgment, handles the entire affair in a roundabout and disconnected manner, and uses circular reasoning that leads nowhere.

When I first opened Disarming Iraq, I expected Blix as an international civil servant to be an impartial observer of the Iraqi situation who would simply be reporting the facts gleaned from his own firsthand experience — essentially, what weapons of mass destruction he discovered (or failed to discover) in Iraq. Furthermore, I imagined that as a European he might express a bias toward Iraqi innocence. Neither turned out to be the case. Like many of his fellow Europeans as well as many rich American Democrats, Blix is a lawyer well practiced at extended argumentation and dispute; but like the Bush administration, he assumes that Iraq is guilty of harboring weapons of mass destruction until proven innocent. "There could be no presumption of innocence in the case of Iraq," he warns (p. 128). Yes, believe it or not, Blix takes the neoconservative position that attempts to prove a negative, which of course fails. You cannot expect fairness from someone who violates the fundamental principle of international criminal law that a government is innocent until proven guilty. This bias against Iraq pervades and distorts what could have been a coherent, objective and much more satisfactory book.

However, presumption of Iraqi guilt is not the only negative trait of Disarming Iraq. Beneath it, I could detect a constant attempt to deflect attention from this bias by walking the fence. My impression was that Blix is trying his hardest to appear objective and uncertain while pleasing supporters and opponents of the Iraq war at the same time. It is a comical balancing act that fails miserably. In one of plentiful examples, Blix states that while disarmament of Iraq had not been achieved, neither had good justification for armed action been created (p. 14). He acclaims the patient and full Iraqi cooperation with the UN inspection teams (p. 111), yet refuses to take seriously the exhaustive 12,000-page Iraqi report on weapons of mass destruction because it contained little new information (p. 107). In another instance he laments the paucity of critical thinking by the US and British governments over the lack of evidence for a renewed Iraqi weapons of mass destruction program (p. 263), yet sympathizes with their post-September 11 unwillingness to take chances with perceived foreign threats despite that lack of evidence (pp. 229–230). The question marks in four of twelve chapter titles reinforce this perception of ambiguity.

Blix begins the book with a tantalizing peek at the last few hours prior to the commencement of the war in Iraq in 2003. Next, he briefly recounts the history of international efforts to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, discussing the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 and the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 as well as the establishment of the IAEA and the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM, the precursor of UNMOVIC) for Iraq. Then he relates the successes and failures of UNSCOM, its replacement by UNMOVIC, and his selection by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to be executive chairman of the new commission.

Dominating this book is Blix's personal narrative of the months, weeks and days leading up to the invasion of Iraq. He recounts numerous meetings with leaders such as Secretary-General Annan, IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, US secretary of state Colin Powell, US national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, and British foreign secretary Jack Straw, giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the operations of the United Nations and the US government. As might be expected, his sketches of these political leaders are flattering. I found it disconcerting that he emphasizes form over substance by repeatedly praising the correctness and politeness of his meetings with these figures and pointing out the importance of occasional humor in breaking a tense atmosphere with Iraqi officials.

Though I expected enlightening information to compose the heart of Disarming Iraq, it is in fact the book's sole redeeming quality. Blix related how as UNMOVIC gradually exhausted natural search locations, it relied more heavily on leads by Western intelligence agencies. "No sites given to us by intelligence were ever found to harbor weapons of mass destruction." (p. 93) Suspected mobile germ weaponry labs turned out to be hydrogen factories for Iraqi weather balloons (p. 154). In addition to the absence of weapons, no illegal activities were discovered at any of the sites which inspectors visited (p. 156). The inspectors were unable to produce a single shred of incriminating evidence. Blix's description of mutual hostility between the spy-ridden UNSCOM, which demanded continuation of inspections, and the IAEA, which desired to close the case against Iraq, is an interesting read as well.

However, all of these facts seem to get lost amidst a sea of persistent questions, relentless conjecture, and unfounded suspicion. Why was the US government so eager for war with Iraq, even at the risk of cutting the UN inspection program short and forging a uranium contract between Iraq and Niger? If Iraq had destroyed the last of its offending weapons in 1991 and shut down its entire range of nuclear, chemical and germ programs by 1994, as all Iraqi scientists and military officers interviewed by the US agreed (p. 257), why was the inspection program being continued? What if Iraq was storing forbidden weapons in some civilian vehicles or buildings? What if Saddam Hussein buried his weapons of mass destruction somewhere in the rural vastness of Iraq, or transferred them to Syria for safekeeping? If Blix "did not have an impression of a lack of sincerity," why did he suspect the Iraqi regime was hiding certain information?

The lack of sound logic and authentic critical thinking is painfully evident. Blix's failure to connect the dots regarding Iraqi innocence and American warmongering is as serious, if not more so, than the Bush administration's failure to detect the warning signs of 9/11. It is obvious to almost everyone in the world — with Blix himself a notable exception — that the US government forged evidence and grasped at straws in order to justify a preplanned invasion of Iraq to seize the country's large oil reserves and provide a fertile new playground for Western big business. Moreover, the Iraqi claim of infiltration by American spies is corroborated by the report that US members of the inspection team asked questions about who was investing in the Nineveh Free Trade Zone and how closely the mosques were related to the regime, questions which were totally unrelated to the search for weapons (pp. 119–120). These undercover agents seemed to be preparing the way for US armed forces to destroy mosques and for Western corporations to remodel the economic structure of Iraq. American spying on Iraq through the UN inspection commission from the mid-1990s onward would also explain the Iraqi government's tendency to refuse to cooperate with American inspectors.

If the US government had planned to invade the country years in advance, as Blix himself admits; if Iraq was fully disarmed in 1994, as all the evidence declares; and if the US was infiltrating and crassly manipulating the UN Security Council, as Blix heard (p. 207), then the UN inspections from the late 1990s onward were an American-inspired charade — and Blix was a part of that charade. He notes that the Iraqi regime accused him of being a spy (p. 67), which is little wonder given his presumption of Iraqi guilt, yet Blix dismisses all the espionage charges as "petty obstacles" to inspections. Throughout the book, Blix's talk of the disarmament process and of "key remaining disarmament tasks" demonstrates a disconnection from reality as one intrusive inspection mission after another fails to find the much-hyped weapons or prohibited activities. He comments that Iraq would be in a more difficult position if it possessed no weapons of mass destruction at all, which is precisely the intent of the warmongering neoconservatives whose belief in Iraqi guilt he shares.

Perhaps Blix should not be judged too harshly. After all, his job required him to serve four masters: truth, international law, the UN, and the CIA. While he endured intense pressure from the American government to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he also bore international pressure to confirm Iraq's innocence. The uncertain and ambivalent tone of the book reflects this attempt to please both sides. Yet Blix's subtle neoconservativism overrides all claims to impartiality. The idea that a government should be considered guilty of harboring and manufacturing weapons of mass destruction until proven innocent is completely unfair and serves to justify American aggression.

At the end of the book, Blix offers reflections on what the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq means for that country, for the Bush administration, and for future disarmament efforts. Here he is a little more forthright, admitting the possibility that Iraq was devoid of the illegal armaments for years prior to the 2003 invasion, and that the American and British governments deliberately exaggerated the risk of such weapons in Iraq to gain public support for the Iraq war. But even in this last chapter, Blix does his best to rationalize the US-led military action:

"The UN and the world had succeeded in disarming Iraq without knowing it." (p. 259)

"[N]o one…could guarantee that Iraq was without any weapons of mass destruction…Presumably it was an awareness of this circumstance that led the US and UK governments to claim certainty that the weapons existed." (p. 270)

The veteran weapons inspector fails to give an adequate answer to two chief questions his book raises: How are we to be certain that any nation formerly possessing weapons of mass destruction has disposed of them completely? And is it right for the United States to wage preemptive war against a country on the pretext that it could harbor weapons of mass destruction, even when no incriminating evidence to justify such an invasion is found? In response to the first issue, Blix offers already existing mechanisms such as foreign policies of détente (which we used with Iraq in the 1980s, during the very period when it actually did possess nuclear and chemical weapons); treaties (Iraq signed the Nonproliferation Treaty); inspection and monitoring programs; and export and transport controls (which actually worked, preventing Iraq from resurrecting its weapons of mass destruction project after the early 1990s). As for the second question, Blix dances around it carefully without acknowledging the existence of objective moral standards. Based on his proclaimed uncertainty regarding the nation's disarmament, his attitude toward the Iraq war is lackadaisical; he seems to accept it as a matter of course. Here also Blix attempts to disguise a neoconservative bias with ambivalence. While he refuses to call the invasion a mistake, and welcomes the elimination of the bloody, ruthless regime of Saddam Hussein, he admits that the unilateral, illegal war weakened the UN Security Council.

In addition to the book's logical and ideological handicaps, I was displeased to find more than a dozen significant typing mistakes. Several of these concerned dates. For example, Blix relates what he did on February 28, 2000 and then says, "The next day, March 1," although the next day would have been February 29 since 2000 was a leap year (p. 43). The reader is left wondering which day it really was. Elsewhere in the book, March 16, 2003 is called a Sunday, and then March 18 is called a Monday (p. 253). Other misprints include the misspelling of names and grammatical errors.

More a tale of controversy and politics than an engrossing investigative journal, Disarming Iraq is simultaneously an enlightening and a confusing read that raises many more questions than it answers. It was written by a smooth lawyer, a cunning diplomat, and a longtime Swedish politician who seems to have no real interest in truth. Apparently, though it satisfies the curiosity of people around the world regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs, the main purpose of this convoluted book is to please those anonymous officials within the American government whose radical neoconservative ideology dictated an invasion of Iraq.

June 23, 2007

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