Canaries in the Cooling Tower

Canaries in the Cooling Tower

Mini Teaser: Weapons inspections are frequently derided as the most feckless tool in our nonproliferation arsenal. In our July/August issue, the head of the Iraq Survey Group runs us through his surreal experience.

by Author(s): Charles A. Duelfer

From the July/August 2009 issue of The National Interest. Also featured in the June 24 International Herald Tribune and New York Times, Global Edition. To see the op-ed version of the article, please click here.


IN LIGHT of the costly tragedy in Iraq, some have commented that inspections would have been an alternative to war. They were not. It was not that simple. Moreover, even with the most intrusive and extensive inspection system ever implemented, we still did not know the extent of Iraq's WMD capacity. Arms inspections are no substitute for war or political compromise, or good independent intelligence. Too often, too many have expected too much from such mechanisms. Inspections are not a goal in themselves. As the urgency and perils of North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs continue to escalate unchecked, attention repeatedly turns to inspections as the remedy of all ills. Yet, the invasiveness of the Iraq inspections was unique. We will never again be able to cajole another country to the extent we did Baghdad. And still we see the limits that even these intrusive inspections had. But, there are untold lessons to be learned from this bizarre case. More than anything else it goes to show that, in spite of their failings, inspections have a purpose and can be wielded to gain information and to deter WMD programs.

There is perhaps no better case study than Iraq. By examining where monitors succeeded and failed, how Baghdad was able to manipulate the system, and how infighting among the great powers eventually led to a dramatic and unceremonious end to inspections, we can see what will be necessary to make progress in North Korea and Iran-they are equally recalcitrant, equally dangerous regimes and advancing apace in their WMD programs.


BACK IN 1991, at the conclusion of the first Gulf War, the UN Security Council crafted a cease-fire resolution that continued the sanctions on Iraq that were initially established in an attempt to get Baghdad to withdraw from Kuwait. The penalties would last until Baghdad destroyed its WMD. The United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) was created to verify this Iraqi disarmament and establish a monitoring system to make sure Iraq didn't rebuild its WMD later.1 The resolutions accorded UNSCOM sweeping authority to do whatever it thought necessary to ensure these ends. The resolutions also came with punishments and rewards. Passed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, there was an implicit threat by the Security Council that if Iraq did not comply, military action against the state would be resumed. There was also the explicit incentive that compliance would lead to the end of sanctions. Thus began the most intrusive inspection regime backed by force since the Versailles Treaty imposed similar measures on Germany after World War


IT TOOK seven years of contentious, sometimes-hostile interactions with Iraq, but UN weapons inspectors did succeed in peeling back the layers of Iraq's WMD programs little by little. In an iterative process, Baghdad gradually revealed more, but often only after confrontations which left inevitable suspicions of more evidence yet to be found.

Disarmament verification was plagued by setbacks. In 1997, Iraq declared that inspectors of American nationality would no longer be permitted into the country because the United States was hostile to Baghdad: American inspectors were disrespectful, too aggressive, biased and served Washington, not the United Nations Security Council. UNSCOM refused to accept this attempt by Iraq to split the UN team and retaliated by withdrawing all inspectors. After this strong reaction by the Security Council, Baghdad relented and the full inspection team returned three weeks later. Still, the Russian and French delegations pressed for substantial organizational and procedural changes to UN operations in response to Iraqi concerns.2 Baghdad was making good progress in dividing the council.

A few months later, another crisis erupted when Iraq refused to allow UNSCOM access to large areas surrounding Saddam's presidential palaces. The UN was convinced that the government had a centrally controlled program of concealment and that orders would come from the highest echelons-hence the drive to get inside the top security and palace buildings to access documents and other materials related to WMD. These attempted inspections were regularly blocked and became the focus of broad media coverage. Debated in the Security Council at all hours of the day and night, the situation became increasingly fraught. Baghdad believed the teams were looking for evidence to attack Saddam. They accused some UN inspectors of being spies. Tensions rose. Secretary-General Kofi Annan allowed himself to be drawn into the fray between a divided Security Council and a recalcitrant Iraq. In a move some characterized as appeasement, Annan traveled to Baghdad in February 1998 to negotiate an agreement with Saddam. He got UNSCOM conditional access to the disputed presidential sites. But, one of the many stipulations was that inspectors be accompanied by a multinational group of diplomats to make sure everyone behaved properly.


SO IN April of 1998, I found myself in Iraq at the center of a circus no one could have predicted. The UN inspections had proceeded to their absurd but logical conclusion: I was leading a team of seventy inspectors from a dozen countries to "inspect" over one thousand buildings in eight large presidential areas, access to which had been completely denied in the past. As the most secure zones in Iraq, they were under the strict control of Saddam Hussein's most trusted security organizations.

Accompanying us on our tour of the presidential palaces were a number of ambassadors from a range of countries, all there to ensure we behaved properly and conducted ourselves with dignity. (Inspectors quickly dubbed the accompanying busloads of ambassadors the "dignity brigade.") We traveled from one palace area to another in a huge Slinky-like convoy of over seventy vehicles, with UNSCOM and Iraqi helicopters monitoring overhead. In addition to the busloads of ambassadors and twenty or thirty UNSCOM vehicles, there were a couple of dozen other vehicles of Iraqi security officers and officials. I personally had several security officers (read: minders) who followed my every move.

At each location, we found the Iraqis had meticulously cleansed each building. There was not a scrap of paper anywhere. UNSCOM previously inspected and copied hard drives. Now, computers were removed. The Iraqis had two months from the negotiated agreement with Annan to prepare for the arrival of the inspection teams at the presidential sites-and they had used that time for a careful spring cleaning.

Outside one facility near what was at the time known as Saddam International Airport, while waiting for inspectors to go through a building, I was joined by Saddam's presidential secretary, Abed Hamid Mahmud-arguably the second-most powerful man in the regime. We were nearing the end of this unique "inspection" and Abed and I gazed around at a scene that was bizarre even by Baghdad's standards. Ambassadors dressed in jackets and ties were following scruffy inspectors who were surrounded by numerous deadly serious Iraqi security officers as they wandered through every palace room, every shed, every jail, every tunnel, every bunker and every storage room in the designated presidential areas. Abed's guards retrieved some chilled Pepsis from the trunk of his Mercedes limousine. Our conversation drifted. I remarked on his pistol, which had an inscription from one of Saddam's sons.

Abed clearly enjoyed exercising the power he derived from being Saddam's "guy." He was not impressive in his own right. Abed said he had a PhD in political science-I doubt he wrote a dissertation, certainly not on his own. He was part of a lethal regime and knew it. Nearby I had passed some bullet-riddled walls and relatively new graves. This was Abed's world. He had an instinctive sense of the dynamics of threat and reward-among both individuals and countries.

We talked about the inspection activity (or "visit" as Annan had agreed to call it). Abed understood the futility of the exercise. He asked why the United States would not simply talk to Iraq. To him, that was the real bottom line. Iraq, he said, would be America's best friend in the region if we could just begin a dialogue. Baghdad would work with Washington-to fight terrorist groups, help in the peace process and gain access to oil. But there was silence every time Iraq tried to initiate talks. Baghdad did not understand why Washington stonewalled.

Abed was not interested in me as the head of the inspection group. He viewed me instead as the one senior American to whom he could talk who would relay our conversations to the White House. He wanted to continue the dialogue after the inspections were done.3 Abed could see the inspections were doomed. Consensus was collapsing within the Security Council, and Baghdad was able to manipulate the weapons inspections, buying time while further disagreement fomented.


THE LACK of a unified Security Council was the ultimate wrench in the weapons inspections' works. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and some members of the Security Council were becoming concerned that inspectors were seeking to do too much. The French, for example, wondered whether we were being too fastidious in our inspections. Was sorting out the remaining uncertainties really worth the cost of sanctions? Implicitly, they wanted the inspectors to produce a politically more acceptable process and judgment. They wanted UNSCOM to say that the remaining issues basically amounted to nothing and everyone could declare success had been achieved.

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