The Cost of Ignoring UN Inspectors: An Unnecessary War with Iraq

IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei (L) and UNMOVIC Executive Chairman Hans Blix (R) brief the UN Security Council on Iraq inspections March 7, 2003 IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei (L) and UNMOVIC Executive Chairman Hans Blix (R) brief the UN Security Council on Iraq inspections March 7, 2003

By Greg Thielmann

On March 7, ten years ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNMOVIC) reported to the UN Security Council on the latest results of their inspections in Iraq, monitoring enforcement of the Council's demand that Saddam Hussein eliminate his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and related programs.

The IAEA's Director General, Mohamed ElBaradei, and UNMOVIC's Executive Chairman, Hans Blix, both reported progress, following the return of UN inspectors to Iraq in November 2002, in resolving critical questions about the current status of Iraq's WMD programs.

Based on more than a hundred visits to suspect sites and private interviews with a number of individual scientists known to have been involved with WMD programs in the past, ElBaradei stated that the IAEA had "to date found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons programme in Iraq" and predicted that the agency should be able to provide that Security Council with an objective and thorough assessment of Iraq's nuclear related capabilities "in the near future."

Blix reported that destruction of Iraq's al Samoud ballistic missiles, which had exhibited ranges beyond that allowed by the UN, was underway. Concerning the status of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons programs, Blix was less categorical. No stockpiles or active programs had been found, but it had not yet been possible to document destruction of all the weapons known to have been produced prior to the 1991 Gulf War. Blitz predicted that months but not years, would be needed to complete the job.

Washington Dismisses the Inspectors' Findings

The Bush administration's response to the inspectors' reports was swift and negative, because their conclusions contradicted the allegations previously made by the U.S. government – for example, with regard to the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraqi WMD. The next day, President George W. Bush delivered a radio address to the American people, arguing that the inspection teams did not need any more time, because Saddam was "still refusing to disarm."

Given Saddam Hussein's "long history of reckless aggression and terrible crimes," the United States needed to be willing to use military force rather than waiting "to see what [he] would do with weapons of mass destruction."

The administration was meanwhile seeking to win UN Security Council authorization to use military force against Iraq to achieve WMD disarmament. Prospects for receiving even a simple majority were uncertain, and three of the other four permanent (veto-wielding) members were opposed, so the issue was never put to a vote.

Eleven days later, the United States delivered an ultimatum for Saddam Hussein to surrender power. On March 19, 2003, U.S. and U.K. military forces invaded Iraq. The "shock and awe" military campaign that followed was short, but the subsequent occupation was long and bloody.

For the United States, the war cost 4,800 fatalities, 32,000 wounded, and hundreds of billions of dollars. As real, but less tangible, the war generated increased hostility among both allies and adversaries alike, and diverted resources and attention from the war in Afghanistan. For Iraq, of course, the costs of the invasion and occupation were far greater.

The Known "Knowns"

The IAEA and UNMOVIC inspectors provided an up-to-date, reality-based assessment of Iraq's WMD programs before the U.S.-led invasion began. Their findings should have led to a careful reassessment of the by then out-of-date U.S. National Intelligence Estimate from October 2002 that Bush administration officials had cherry-picked to build a case for military action.

We now know that the assessments of Blix and El Baradei were correct – ten years ago, Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction or active WMD programs – but we also know that Saddam Hussein retained his interest in pursuing them. Saddam's successors in Baghdad today have neither such weapons nor the interest in developing them. These realities lead to two different narratives about the war.

Former officials in the Bush administration claim that the stated rationale was made in good faith even if the intelligence turned out to be inaccurate. In any case, they argue, the ouster of Saddam's regime justified the effort.

Others contend that the already flawed intelligence estimate was further exaggerated in presentations to the public, and even worse, that it was disingenuously used only to justify a policy decision already made, rather than to help choose which policy path to take.

Looking back on the information the UN inspectors provided to the Security Council ten years ago helps confirm the validity of the second narrative. The administration's case – plausible (if problematic) when it was first laid out in October 2002 – had, by early March 2003, been riddled with holes. Accusations that Iraq was hiding chemical weapons, producing biological weapons, and actively pursuing nuclear weapons was contradicted by the evidence gathered from the UN inspectors in the field and undermined further by the Iraqi actions being taken under the inspectors' supervision.

If history validates and vindicates the role played by the IAEA and UNMOVIC in the Iraq WMD saga, it must also acknowledge the instrumental contribution made by the United States in backing them up with the threat of force. Indeed, Saddam Hussein is unlikely to have allowed the return of UN inspectors without both a credible threat of U.S. military force being used and a display of UN Security Council unity in demanding a full accounting. Without their return to Iraq after a four-year absence, there would have been insufficient basis for concluding that Saddam had been contained.

If only the Bush administration and Congress had listened to the UN inspectors. If only the United States had used its forces to maintain the authority and integrity of UN Security Council resolutions rather than as a means for pursuing its own unilateral objectives, war could have been avoided as proliferation was contained.

Unfortunately, U.S. motives were not those presented at the time by U.S. leaders. The two century old admonition and judgment of President John Adams with regard to another looming war at the end of the 18th century seems particularly apt with regard to the Iraq invasion at the dawn of the 21st: "great is the shame of an unnecessary war."