In the July/August 2009 issue of The National Interest, former U.N. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer painted a picture of the first round of Iraq inspections in the 1990s. On the one hand, his piece is informative because it explains how international support for inspections in Iraq deteriorated. This was pushed along by Saddam’s astute use of bribes and lucrative petroleum deals through the United Nations’ Oil for Food program to sow dissent amongst the Security Council. On the other hand nowhere does he mention the work that the inspectors did in Iraq, which was largely successful in destroying Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and nuclear programs. Rather Duelfer solely concentrates upon the political squabbles that occurred behind the scenes in Iraq, and within the United Nations that led to the end of the inspections in 1998.
As part of the 1991 cease-fire that ended the Gulf War, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Iraq until it divulged and destroyed all of its WMD and nuclear programs. To achieve this goal the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) was created as the first inspectors in Iraq. This was the toughest and most intrusive inspection regime created since Germany after World War I. Duelfer skips all of UNSCOM’s early work, and goes to its last two years in 1997 and 1998 to highlight the political problems it ran into.
1997 was the beginning of the end of UNSCOM. In that year Iraq refused to admit American inspectors into the country claiming that Washington was trying to undermine the government. That was true as Pres. Clinton tried to launch a coup the previous year using the inspections. At the same time, Saddam was making another concerted effort to undermine and end the process, and the sanctions. UNSCOM didn’t comply with Baghdad’s request, and withdrew. They returned in three weeks, but under a deal brokered by France and Russia where foreign diplomats acted as chaperons for the inspectors. A few months later Baghdad refused to let the inspectors into presidential palaces. A deal was eventually worked out with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, but many saw it as appeasement of Saddam. The delay also allowed Iraq to empty the palaces of any incriminating material.
By 1997 support for the inspections and sanctions were weakening anyway within the Security Council. Iraq was offering Russia, France, and other countries preferential oil contracts under the Oil for Food program to weaken and undermine UNSCOM. Iraq was also correctly arguing that the inspections were being used by the U.S. for political ends, beyond what the U.N. resolution called for. Duelfer argues that these divisions made the inspections useless. The inspectors themselves became divided, some collecting intelligence for their own countries, some giving it to Iraq, and the lack of a united Security Council meant that Baghdad could chip away at the inspections little by little with no repercussions.
In 1998 Iraq refused to cooperate with the inspectors anymore. They withdrew as the U.S. and England launched Operation Desert Fox, a bombing campaign for non-cooperation with UNSCOM. Duelfer calls the attack a “feckless bombing,” and said that afterwards U.S. containment of Iraq ended with the suspension of inspections. This is far from true. Gen. Anthony Zinni, who was the commander of the U.S. Central Command at the time, received intelligence that Saddam was teetering and was seriously afraid that he might be overthrown as a result Desert Fox. More importantly, as a result of the bombing, Iraq decided to give up on its weapons programs. The Iraq Study Group later found out that labs were shutdown and work was ended as Baghdad believed that it could never continue under U.N. sanctions and U.S. attacks. The U.S.-U.K. no fly zones continued, as well as U.N. sanctions, and Iraq never restarted its weapons programs. The problem of course was that the West completely missed these changes in Iraq. Saddam’s constant refusal to cooperate with inspections, convinced the United States that Iraq would never give up its desire to have WMD. These unresolved issues were left to fester, and became a driving issue for many American politicians and foreign policy officials, who later gained office in the Bush administration.
Where Duelfer’s article really falls short however is that he never really discusses what UNSCOM accomplished. He writes that the inspections did find out a lot about Iraq’s WMD programs in seven years, but never mentions that by 1996 Iraq’s known WMD munitions and equipment, and nuclear programs had been dismantled and destroyed. There was still an unaccounted for stockpile of weapons and WMD agents left over from the Iran-Iraq War, much of which was probably useless as it had expired, but as far as new production or active programs was concerned, there were none by the time UNSCOM left the country in December 1998.
Instead what you walk away from the Duelfer piece thinking is that the inspections were eventually undermined by political divisions within the U.N. and maneuvers by Saddam, and that overall they were failure. It seems that Duelfer came away from his work with UNSCOM mad and bitter because he was forced to leave before he felt his job was done. His comments after 1998 show that he was open to any and all allegations of Iraq breaking the U.N. resolutions on its WMD and nuclear programs. Even now in 2009 he apparently still holds a grudge from his experience, which makes him ignore the successes that he achieved while an inspector.
Blix, Hans, “An Update On Inspection,” UNMOVIC, 1/27/03
CNN, “Scott Ritter: Facts needed before Iraq attack,” 7/12/02
Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, “S/1997/779,” International Atomic Energy Agency, 10/8/97
Duelfer, Charles, “Canaries in the Cooling Tower,” The National Interest, July/August 2009
Gordon, Michael and Miller, Judith, “Threats And Responses: The Iraqis; U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest For A-Bomb Parts,” New York Times, 9/8/02
Guardian, “The coup that wasn’t,” 9/26/05
Miller, Judith, “An Iraqi Defector Tells of Work on at Least 20 Hidden Weapons Sites,” New York Times, 12/20/01
PBS Frontline, “Interview: Kenneth Pollack,” 2/20/03
Rangwala, Glen, Hurd, Nathaniel, and Millar, Alistair, “A Case For Concern, Not A Case For War,” Middle East Report Online, 1/28/03
Ricks, Tom, Fiasco, 2006
Ritter, Scott, “The Case for Iraq’s Qualitative Disarmament,” Arms Control Today, June 2000
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