Today, weapons inspector chief Hans Blix retires from the United Nations' Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission — the Weapons of Mass Destruction search team. The hunt for the weapons, of course, continues. And the United States' lack of success in finding any tangible evidence of a biological, chemical or nuclear arsenal is the source of continuing friction with U.S. allies.
Speaking publicly for the last time as chief arms inspector a week ago at a meeting in New York, Blix took his parting shot at the Bush administration, saying "It is sort of puzzling that you can have 100 percent certainty about weapons of mass destruction and zero certainty about where they are." But later, Blix told me that he feels the U.S. teams may still find banned weapons.
In the weeks before U.S. and British forces invaded Iraq, U.S. officials insisted that Saddam Hussein had an active illegal weapons programs and strongly criticized Blix's reports to the Security Council for failing to back up those contentions strongly enough. Now, President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair are feeling the heat because no weapons of mass destruction have been found, although CIA director George Tenet stands by the classified report that supported the administration's position.
Actually, both sides have grounds for being irritated with the other. Blix complains that the three and a half months he was given to restart the inspections was insufficient, but he and critics are now pouncing on the Bush team's inability to find the weapons in the two months since the fall of Baghdad — all the while having to deal with snipers, ambushes, humanitarian relief needs and looting. Blix and other supporters of the UN weapons program have always said that weapons inspections are a limited tool of international diplomacy, which rely on the cooperation of the host government to accomplish the mission.
While the Bush administration has recently been raising other reasons to justify the attack — notably the suffering of the Iraqi people under Saddam Hussein's ruthless dictatorship — finding WMDs still matters. Although the Bush administration tried hard to get UN backing for the invasion, in the end it went ahead alone, citing article 51 of the United Nations charter, which allows a country to stage a pre-emptive attack if it is in danger of being attacked by another nation. But that danger has to be real, and if no WMDs are found in Iraq, it will seriously undermine that justification.
For the most part, international law has dealt with WMD through the negotiation and verification of arms control treaties, a method useful during the Cold War and useless with terrorist organizations. Arms control treaties had an important place in the limiting of weapons in history, but the tricky part is that the development and possession of materials used in making WMDs has not been illegal under customary international law. When inspectors find materials used for these weapons, they have to determine if there is another possible nonmilitary use.
Saddam Hussein told the inspectors that the weapons were destroyed in 1991 after the Gulf War. Inspectors made their last significant finds in Iraq in 1994. After a long hiatus, inspectors returned to look for WMDs from late 2002 until March of this year.
During the inspections, Hussein generally skirted the edge of non-cooperation, causing many people to conclude that he must be trying to hide something. At the meeting in New York, Richard N. Gardner, an international law professor, asked Blix why Hussein would have played cat and mouse with inspectors if the weapons had all indeed been destroyed. "Pride," Blix responded, adding that Iraq had also miscalculated and assumed the United States would not invade.
The war against terror requires a long-term commitment to searching for weapons, cutting off the financial resources of terrorists and eliminating terrorist networks, one by one. In the case of Iraq, information gathered from Iraqi scientists is paramount, as is encouraging them to feel they will be safe if they cooperate. The recent blunder with Iraqi scientist Mahdi Shukur Obeidi, who was arrested by U.S. military forces when he tried to gain asylum in exchange for information is an example of what to avoid.
Meanwhile Blix, a former Swedish foreign service officer who turned 75 this week, is considering writing a book. Several publishers have approached him and some were at the meeting in New York. "They are throwing me a goodby party at the UN on June 30," Blix told me. His farewell to arms — inspections that is — will be to write a "nuanced view" of the period. Perhaps it will be instructive for future negotiators.
By Pamela Falk