Iraq's illicit weapons: Insider's cautions


"The Greatest Threat: Iraq, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the Growing Crisis of Global Security," by Richard Butler. PublicAffairs. 262 pages. $26.

Richard Butler has thrown a dead skunk onto the buffet of the diplomatic reception room. That rotting, reeking animal would be Iraq, more specifically its weapons of mass destruction.

Butler, a working-class Australian who rose to become a combative disarmament diplomat, ran the United Nations' inspection efforts in Iraq from May 1997 until November 1998, when Saddam shut down the nosy operation. The following month allied bombs rained down on suspected Iraqi weapons plants; international inspectors have not been back since.

"No one is watching Saddam Hussein. You can be certain that he is not waiting idly for the UN to suddenly realize its failure. He is building -- building weapons," Butler writes, comparing the Iraqi dictator to Adolf Hitler, with whom Hussein shares "the infamy of having used chemical weapons for genocidal purposes."

This is a sobering book. Butler describes how Iraq was successful in portraying him as a "mad dog" and his inspectors as brutish "cowboys." Those complaints and repeated stalling tactics served to bar access to Iraq's most secretive weapons plants and labs.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan was "lied to, played for a fool" by the Iraqis, argues Butler. And dissension among the top U.N. members -- France and China wanted Iraqi trade, a Russian official took Iraqi bribes -- led to timid pronouncements in the face of Iraqi recalcitrance. That left the United States and Britain with little enforcement support against a chilling foe.

Butler recalls a comment by an Iraqi general casually explaining the use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops in the 1980s: "What do you expect? When you've got an insect problem, you use insecticide."

In his team's inspections of Iraq, Butler writes, Iraq denied that they ever manufactured a deadly nerve agent, then admitted to only 200 liters. U.N. inspectors found 3,900 liters was closer to the truth.

Iraq's biological weapon's production, Butler says, remains an inscrutable "black hole." A briefcase seized from two Iraqi officials contained test materials for the biological agents anthrax and botulinum toxin.

Butler dismisses the widespread charges made by inspector Scott Ritter, a former U.S. Marine officer, that they passed on information about Iraq to U.S. intelligence. Such efforts, he says, would have hurt the disarmament effort. Ritter often had to be reined in for his overly aggressive efforts, which played into the Iraqi efforts to portray the U.N. inspectors as cowboys.

The "main triumph" of Iraq has been the removal of all monitoring efforts. Controlling Hussein's weapons capability should be a top issue the current U.S. presidential race, Butler says.

Given his indictment against Hussein and his nefarious weapons, Butler ponders the question his treatise begs: "Does the world community have an obligation to remove a person with a track record like that of Saddam?" Butler sidesteps this weightiest of queries, saying it is a "difficult question legally and even more difficult politically."

Instead he presses for a new veto-proof U.N. organization, a Council on Weapons of Mass Destruction. But given the track record of the United Nations with Hussein and the dictator's efforts to conceal his weapons, what would a new bureaucracy achieve? Did diplomatic efforts ever work with a German dictator who also favored chemicals?

These are some additional questions for the next president.

Tom Bowman, The Sun's military affairs correspondent, has been a reporter for the past 20 years and has written extensively on the U.S. intelligence community, the Pentagon's efforts to vaccinate all servicemembers against anthrax and the federal government's boost in federal funds to fight terrorism. Bowman received a master's degree from Boston College in American Studies, focusing on Robert F. Kennedy and foreign policy.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad