Blix Blames Politicians, Not Intelligence, for Iraq

Review of Hans Blix’s book, Disarming Iraq.

According to the jacket flap of Hans Blix’s new book, Mr. Blix is arguably the only key player to emerge from the Iraq crisis “with his integrity intact.” Whether or not that is true, this is a good book and a useful memoir, clearly describing the process leading up to last March’s invasion of Iraq from the perspective of the United Nations employee charged with trying to verifiably disarm Saddam Hussein’s regime.

As is well known, Mr. Blix was not happy with the United States and Britain’s decision to go to war, seeing the invasion as premature and perhaps unnecessary. Unlike his former colleague David Kay, he does not place primary blame for the rush to war on the world’s intelligence services. Rather, he convincingly places the responsibility where it belongs, squarely on the backs of political leaders.

“I am not suggesting that Blair and Bush spoke in bad faith,” he writes, “but I am suggesting that it would not have taken much critical thinking on their own part or the part of their close advisers to prevent statements that misled the public.” Continuing his critique of Washington’s and London’s prewar diplomacy, he writes, “It is an interesting notion that when a small minority has been rebuffed by a strong majority, it is the majority that has failed the test.”

Mr. Blix’s main argument will not come as a surprise to those who followed last year’s debate. He claims that the United Nations weapons inspections that resumed in November 2002 after a four-year hiatus were working reasonably well and certainly had not run their course when the United States and Britain decided to invade Iraq. While recognizing that the demise of Mr. Hussein’s regime removed a monster from power, he also argues that the world could have lived with a defanged Baathist regime.

Mr. Blix may be too multilateralist and legalistic for many, including me. But his book makes clear that he is not simply naïve or categorically opposed to the use of force. He understands that the world could not inspect Iraq forever, and his thinking on what should have happened in 2002-03 is neatly summarized in the book’s introductory chapter:

Without a military buildup by the U.S. in the summer of 2002, Iraq would probably not have accepted a resumption of inspections. However, if we assume this buildup and the return of inspectors, it is conceivable that a moderate continued buildup, continued inspections with no denials of access, and a guarantee of large-scale interviews with technical people in Iraq could have shown in time that there were no weapons of mass destruction. It would surely have been difficult to persuade both inspectors and the world, let alone the U.S., but if there had not been hopeful results by, say July 2003, it seems likely that a majority in the Security Council might have been ready to authorize armed action, which could have started with U.N. legitimacy after the summer heat—and revealed that there were no weapons.”

In reviewing what he and his colleagues were able to do in Iraq from November 2002 through March 2003, he generally gives the Iraqis high marks for allowing quick and unconditional access to all sites. He criticizes them for often failing to make weapons scientists available for interviews without minders present; for resisting inspectors’ demands that reconnaissance planes like the U-2 be assured safe passage in Iraqi airspace; for failing to provide more documentation about what they had done with stocks of chemical and biological agents, which he himself thought might well still exist; and for possessing illegal stocks of Al Samoud 2 missiles.

But the United States and Britain receive ample criticism too: for exaggerating the dependability and accuracy of their intelligence, for insisting that Iraq possessed mobile biological weapons factories and nuclear weapons programs when in fact it did not, for trusting the reports of defectors too much and for disparaging the track record and the future potential of weapons inspections.

While his narrative is generally accurate, his analysis suffers from some problems. He gives too little weight to the fact that Mr. Hussein impeded inspections for more than a decade after the Persian Gulf war (to say nothing of Mr. Hussein’s massacres of his own people, attempted assassination of former President George H. W. Bush and occasional aggressive moves toward Kuwait and Kurdistan). His suggestion that the United States never really worried about Iraq before 9/11, and that it might have been vigilant to a fault after, ignores the fact that the Clinton administration and many independent analysts were indeed seriously concerned about Mr. Hussein.

Mr. Blix’s observation that inspections, which cost $80 million a year, should have been given more time to work before an $80 billion-a-year military solution was adopted ignores his own earlier observation that the inspections would never have had a chance without a large military buildup that was itself costing billions a month even before the invasion. And his depiction of the previous policy of containment as low cost ignores the harm it did to the Iraqi people as well as to the image of America in the Arab world. In fact, by keeping United States military forces in Saudi Arabia for so long, containment policy gave Al Qaeda a rallying cry.

Mr. Blix’s confidence that the Security Council would eventually have done the right thing if only Washington and London had been more patient and reasonable is also overstated. He fails to acknowledge that France was visibly and vocally bent on constraining American power as much as it was on disarming Iraq. Not only that, Germany’s Gerhard Schröder made strong, categorical opposition to a possible Iraq war the centerpiece of his re-election campaign in 2002.

But to understand how they are seen abroad Americans should read this book. Indeed, its critique of how Washington handled the Iraq crisis is genteel and fair compared with how most observers overseas have viewed the matter.