Jewish World Review Dec. 5, 2002 / 30 Kislev, 5763

David Warren

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A farce | "Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donner and Blixen." With Christmas approaching, the spectacle of the UNMOVIC weapons inspectorate in Iraq keeps putting me in mind of Santa's reindeer. And it is hard to look upon the smiling face of the Swedish international bureaucrat, Hans Blix, without mentally affixing the antlers.

As if to take the wind out of his sails, the United Nations inspection team followed up President Bush's warning speech to Iraq at the Pentagon the day before, by making their first call yesterday at Saddam Hussein's Al-Sijood Palace. This sprawling compound is one of three such in Baghdad, and about sixty scattered across the country. After a brief scene of chaos at the gate, as guards signalled their arrival, the little team in sparkling U.N. Range Rovers was admitted. After a cursory 90-minute prance around, they departed again.

The sorts of thing they are looking for can be hidden under floorboards, so I suppose on seeing that the floors were marble, they knew they were wasting their time.

The journalists were then invited in, and stayed longer. Since the visit was supposed to be a surprise, it was a slight surprise to me that not one of the journalists publicly asked himself how he came to know about it. They reported a long tree-lined drive to the main building, whose octagonal three-storey reception hall is a great marble vault, with poems in praise of the glory of Saddam inlayed in huge gold letters on every wall. They also got to walk round the marble-paved central atrium. They could not tell us whether any of the U.N. inspectors had visited the innumerable other buildings in the compound; they were merely assured by the hospitable Iraqis that those inspectors had left happy..

"Oriental despotism" is alive and well, no matter what Edward Said says; the palaces of Saddam are hardly untypical of the mode of misgovernment in the Middle East. Imagine: sixty of these palaces. And the world's leftists complain that Iraq's children are starving because of U.S.-imposed trade sanctions. The same will not be hard to convince that Iraq has discarded its weapons of mass destruction; and had these weapons not been used previously to effect the deaths of tens of thousands of Kurdish, Shia Iraqi, Iranian, and other people, they would be equally persuaded that Saddam never had them.

Hans Blix, the man who heads the UNMOVIC inspection agency, has been described as "one of nature's dupes" by Per Ahlmark, an old colleague in Sweden who has known him 40 years. He is a man with a sweet and trusting nature, a degree in international law, no technical qualifications for his present job, or for his chief previous ones for that matter, and a long and chaste record of failing to see the elephant in his way.

As head of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, whose job it was to discover Saddam's nuclear programme in the late 1980s, he saw, heard, and said nothing at all, and signed the Iraqi despot's clean bill of health. He was utterly shocked - mortified -- when Iraqi defectors in 1991 revealed the existence of Saddam's massive programme.

Unfortunately, the way the world works, his career did not end there. For after 1991, in Iraq itself, he made his name by trying to prevent the U.N.'s David Kay from making the unannounced inspection that confirmed Iraq was within 18 months of its first nuclear bomb. The inspection was made anyway, behind Mr. Blix's back. It was quite a scene -- the Iraqis ordering soldiers and a mob to surround Mr. Kay's inspectors, while they faxed crucial documents to safety by satellite. No doubt Mr. Blix was appalled, by Mr. Kay 's breach of diplomatic and hierarchical etiquette.

For Mr. Blix prides himself in being non-confrontational. He briefs his staff to make little jokes to reduce the tension while directing polite requests to Iraqi officials; he tells them it is their duty to believe anything they are told until the facts prove otherwise.

The Iraqis had found the previous U.N. inspector, the distressingly competent Richard Butler, much too confrontational, and found the American's proposed compromise candidate, another Swede, Rolf Ekeus, also too confrontational. Mr. Blix was the sort of sap they were looking for, and in 1998 the Clinton administration was persuaded to accept him as the head of the newly watered-down UNMOVIC after long nights of filibuster by the Russians, French, and Kofi Annan.

In the end, the Iraqis decided that even Hans Blix might be too confrontational, sent the whole U.N. mission packing, and they are only back now, four years later, because President George W. Bush got so heavy in front of the U.N. General Assembly.

Defenders of Mr. Blix argue that his long history of failure, bureaucratic time-serving, technical ignorance, and general inadequacy are the surest guarantee he will succeed today, for at the age of 74, he needs this last chance to prove himself. This is to entirely misunderstand the mentality of the bureaucrat. For in his own mind, Mr. Blix is "dynamic" (his favourite word to describe what he wants from his team), and his large number of friends and small number of enemies makes him one of life's success stories. He knows the U.N. doesn't want him to find anything; that the U.S. does; and that the U.N. is paying his salary. His job is a little more complicated than just finding nothing, which requires little skill. The trick is to assuage the angry Americans, while finding nothing.

So he has to make it look like he is trying, but not so hard as to expose himself or any of his team to personal danger. Hence all this vacuous media posturing: "Look at us! Another camera-friendly swoop in our shiny white Range Rovers!"

Does it fool anybody? Indeed, everyone who wants to be fooled.

One quickly forms the impression, when communicating with U.N. staff and diplomats, that the opinion foolishly stated before witnesses by Canada's Francoise Ducros, former aide to Prime Minister Chretien, to the effect that Mr. Bush is a "moron", is quite widely held. They genuinely believe, in the face of much evidence, that Mr. Bush and his government must be easy to fool -- so that, no matter how many times he surprises them, they readily return to this core belief. Why? Because if Mr. Bush isn't a moron, it means they must be, an idea that is naturally unthinkable to them.

The Americans will be hard to assuage. As anyone working in the White House can tell you, the Bush administration spent two months staring down the Russians, French, Kofi Annan, and its own State Department to retain certain powers of action in their Security Council resolution. In particular, Mr. Blix has the power to interview knowledgeable Iraqis outside the country, and to have their families removed from the reach of Saddam's reprisals to make sure they can talk.

It is the only way to get quickly to pay dirt, absent other information, and short of some miracle of ineptitude on Saddam's side. For if you want to know where something is hidden, especially in a country the size of Iraq, you must ask for tips. But since Mr. Blix has shown no interest in exercising this or any other serious option, and is comfortably restricting himself to these empty media performances, it follows he is nowhere near the centre of action.

The question must therefore be asked, why did President Bush agree to participate in this farce? The immediate reason is the obvious political and diplomatic one. He has to carry some portion of the world along with him, at least formally, and for as long as possible, to make any kind of initial action practicable. And even to keep U.S. public opinion on side, he must be seen to be doing everything in his power to carry this portion of the world. So much of Mr. Bush's art consists in trading the "symbolical gesture" for the "substantial concession", and he must be generous in bestowing the kinds of decorations on which the vanity of the world insists.

The real story here is not that Hans Blix and company aren't making proper use of their powers to investigate. The Bush administration all along knew what kind of man they were dealing with, and what was the most they could expect.

The real story is rather that the U.S. has not given Mr. Blix and company any kind of help. The Americans do, after all, have quite elaborate satellite-based and other monitoring systems in place, and are more likely than anyone in the U.N. to know where inspections could most fruitfully be made. Clearly, the Americans assume any information provided to Mr. Blix will be quickly compromised.

In his speech at the Pentagon Monday, President Bush instead drew attention to the date, December 7th, which will be this Saturday. It is the deadline for Saddam's government to table a complete account of its illegal weapons programmes, including how those known to exist before the weapons inspectors left in 1998 were disposed of.

Lulled, almost gulled by the comic ease with which Mr. Blix dispatches himself on goose chases, Saddam appears to have calculated that he can get away with a declaration amounting to a blank sheet. That will, after all, be good enough for Mr. Blix and the bureaucracy at the United Nations. It will be extremely interesting to see how the Bush administration responds to it, however.

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JWR contributor David Warren is a Columnist for the Ottawa Citizen. Comment by clicking here.

11/13/02: A game of chess
10/30/02: Material breach
10/21/02: Armed & dangerous
09/11/02: The enemy within
08/21/02: Bush v. world
08/06/02: Has Sharon gone 'wobbly'?
07/24/02: Evil Sharon
06/19/02: The end is nigh
06/17/02: Those darn American imperialists!

© 2002, Ottawa Citizen