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June 2, 2022
Disarmingly Bland
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Disarming Iraq, by Hans Blix, Pantheon Books, March 2004, 285 pp.

Greg Thielmann

The emerging story behind America’s intervention to disarm Iraq would be comical if it were not so tragic. The primary objective of the invasion was to destroy Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction,” but these weapons had already been destroyed. Another stated objective was to uphold the authority and effectiveness of the United Nations Security Council, but the invasion was launched after the majority of Security Council members refused to authorize it. The efforts of UN inspectors were being dismissed by U.S. leaders as feckless, even while the inspectors themselves were making progress at resolving outstanding issues and destroying short-range ballistic missiles judged to be in violation of UN limits. And as self-styled paladin of the world community in pursuit of nonproliferation, the United States ended up doing long-term damage to some key nonproliferation tools, such as weapons inspections, while discrediting and marginalizing the UN’s point man for disarming Iraq.

The task of eliminating Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” programs after the 1991 Gulf War was exceedingly complicated. While the legitimacy for the effort was provided by the U.N. Security Council, its implementation depended upon a small cadre of UN inspectors on the ground, backed by the “carrot” of relief from sanctions, and the “stick” threat of military force. Success was contingent on winning the cooperation of Saddam Hussein—a wily politician and utterly untrustworthy tyrant. In retrospect, the international community’s success was remarkable. But it didn’t appear that way when UN inspectors were forced to leave Iraq in 1998 before completing their mandate: international resolve had weakened amid the suffering of the Iraqi people under post-war sanctions and the progress already made in dismantling unconventional weapons programs. After launching punitive air strikes, even the U.S. and U.K. governments seemingly capitulated in the face of Saddam’s defiance.

Yet in spite of everything, the expressed willingness of the United States and the United Kingdom to use force in the fall of 2002 to ensure full Iraqi compliance with UN Security Council Resolutions opened up new possibilities. In exploiting these favorable winds to navigate the treacherous course toward resolving outstanding issues, the UN had found an excellent pilot in Hans Blix. The 74-year-old, former Swedish diplomat had served for 16 years as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and had supervised the dismantling of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program in the 1990s. He understood the importance of intelligence, of military means of suasion, and of inspectors taking direction from the Security Council rather than from individual UN members. As Executive Director of the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) since 2000, Blix had worked effectively to assemble and train an expert team, and to maintain professional distance from the Western intelligence agencies whose activities had undermined the legitimacy of UNMOVIC’s predecessor organization, UNSCOM.

In style, Hans Blix displayed an unusual combination of brilliance and blandness, of careful diplomacy and droll wit, of fairness and professionalism. He also was meticulous in characterizing the activities and findings of his inspectors, allowing his record to withstand well the revelations that have exposed so many of his fellow actors in the Iraqi drama as incompetent or dishonest.

If the UN had the right individual for the job of policing Security Council Resolutions on Iraq and a large enough military club to get Saddam to pay attention to UN demands, what went wrong? One problem was that those who wielded the club were using arms control as a means to bring Saddam down rather than as a mechanism to provide assurance that unconventional weapons were not being pursued. The other problem was that Saddam overestimated his ability to manipulate the UN or U.S. public opinion, ultimately providing too little, too late to divert the oncoming juggernaut.

Vice President Cheney’s August 2002 speech to Veterans of Foreign Wars was the first clear indication that the Bush administration had decided to act on its wish for regime change in Iraq. However, the final decision to go to war appears to have been made in early January 2003, as graphically reported in Bob Woodward’s recent Plan of Attack. All of the events thereafter were presumably designed to build support for war rather than to avert it. This helps explain why the White House never asked for an update of the Intelligence Community’s October 2002 estimate of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) even after three months of fresh inspections and revelations had resolved some ambiguities and seriously undermined the contention that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program. It also helps explain why UNMOVIC’s success in achieving the destruction of al Samoud missiles—which had a longer range than permitted under U.N. resolutions—and beginning interviews with knowledgable weapons scientists under satisfactory conditions made no difference in the Bush administration’s persistent contention that the inspection effort had failed.

In Disarming Iraq, Blix describes meticulously his role in the diplomatic dance leading up to the invasion. He does so with careful accounts of his consultations with Western leaders and his Iraqi interlocutors, and generally refraining from speculation about events to which he was not party. He makes no excuses for the inadequacy of Iraqi cooperation; but he uses no hyperbole in describing evidence of Iraqi non-compliance. He is refreshingly honest in explaining sympathetically the real-world dilemmas faced by the United States and other members of the Security Council in trying to secure compliance from a recalcitrant Iraqi government. Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty and Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies offer authoritative inside looks at an administration obsessed with removing Saddam. Blix provides the perspective on U.S. Iraq policies of a key outsider, whose actions and judgments were seen as an ever present danger to the war party in Washington.

That Blix understood the administration’s tactics in early 2003 is readily evident from a chapter title in his book: “Bashing Blix and ElBaradei.” But just as his measured language in the face of Iraqi actions infuriated administration officials in the months prior to war, so the lack of purple prose in Blix’s book will frustrate some critics of the Bush administration today. Instead of registering open contempt for the arguments of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice—e.g., that Iraq was allowing its al Samoud missiles to be destroyed “just to mislead,” Blix comments that he “always found our talks straight forward…She relied on rational arguments, not on the authority of her position.”

Acknowledging that Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 5, 2003 speech to the UN Security Council was probably intended to discredit the work of his inspectors, Blix nonetheless notes that Powell did so “implicitly and in a courteous manner.” In response to Powell’s sophistic use of evidence, Blix recalls his immediate reaction that the “interesting” cases described would “need to be examined critically by our experts.” Blix also has the magnanimity to credit David Kay’s contributions to the UNSCOM inspections, even though prior to a well-publicized post-war conversion as head of the Iraq Survey Group, Kay was one of his most vociferous critics. Indeed, only Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation John Wolf earns Blix’s open scorn.

Whatever resentment or frustration Blix harbored, he remained focused throughout the lead-up to war on trying to convince Iraq of the urgent need to demonstrate that it had destroyed its past unconventional weapons and had dismantled equipment and facilities that could produce future weapons. Meanwhile, as Bush secretly ordered war and pretended to give Saddam a final chance to come clean, Woodward reports that “Some in Bush’s war cabinet believed Blix was a liar…not reporting everything and not doing all the things he maintained he was doing.” Future historians will no doubt marvel at this psychological projection by those who had already decided on war.

In Disarming Iraq, Blix offers valuable insights in understanding the inspection function. Just as his writing displays the kind of judicial temperament needed to fulfill the role of inspector, his tips for inspectors and advocacy of a strengthened international civil service constitute an excellent primer on the task. Future inspectors can be expected to emulate the behavioral and attitudinal patterns Blix established.

As rich as the book is, one could wish for a little more. Blix noted that intelligence organizations err on the alarmist side of estimates, but he could have also explained why intelligence organizations are sometimes obligated by governments to make guesses when confidence levels are insufficient. From a professional analyst’s perspective, it was the failure to properly label confidence levels about the existence of chemical and biological weapons that was more objectionable than getting the wrong answer. While acknowledging in his book the primacy of the nuclear category among “weapons of mass destruction,” Blix could also be faulted for doing little to counter the deliberate conflation of nuclear, chemical, biological, and missile categories under the “WMD” label by the Bush administration.

Following the invasion, Blix realized that “the UN and the world had succeeded in disarming Iraq without knowing it.” The intriguing question remains: Could Blix have gained that knowledge with a few more months of inspections in 2003 and were there ways that the danger of Security Council fatigue could have been warded off in the meantime?

Greg Thielmann retired in 2002 as director of the Strategic, Proliferation, and Military Affairs Office in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.


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