nthposition online magazine

The inspections sham: Why the US won't take 'yes' for an answer


[ politics | opinion - september 02 ]

After months of warmongering from Washington and threats that the United States would act alone to force "regime change" in Baghdad, George Bush finally addressed the United Nations on 12th September. "We will work with the UN," he announced, "the Security Council resolutions must be enforced." [1] In the light of recent attempts to gain the backing of the United Nations, one could almost be forgiven for thinking, first, that the Bush Administration actually considers multilateralism to be important and, secondly, that it actually wants weapons inspections to take place.

The reality could not be more different. The stream of international treaties abandoned by the Bush administration since it came to office has been well documented. Interestingly, many of them concern the very issue over which the US is at fault with Iraq: weapons proliferation. While Baghdad is told that it must disarm, the US has unilaterally abandoned the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to develop a National Missile Defence system. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has been shelved as it is considered a constraint on America's ability to develop and test new nuclear weapons. The government is planning to block a protocol on inspections which is attached to the 1972 treaty banning the development, production and possession of biological weapons. The hypocrisy of US policy on inspections is such that, just like Iraq, it has refused to accept inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW - the world's governing body for chemical weapons) from countries it regards as hostile to its interests and has told inspectors who have been allowed access which parts of a site they may and may not inspect. It also passed special legislation allowing the President to block unannounced inspections and prevent them removing samples of chemicals. [2] Then, of course, there's the International Criminal Court, the threatened blocking of the UN's anti-torture convention, the lack of legal rights for the 'unlawful combatants' of Guantanamo Bay as well as the Kyoto agreement (although George Bush recently deigned to inform us all that, although he does not know what to do about it, global warming does exist after all.) [3]

For months Iraq has been requesting and taking part in talks with the UN which, instead of being encouraged, have been dismissed at every opportunity by the United States. In February, the first overtures were made to the UN for talks on readmitting the inspectors. This was greeted with scepticism from both Britain and the US. [4] Then, in an unprecedented move in March which, unsurprisingly, hardly made the press on either side of the Atlantic, Saddam offered to allow weapons inspectors back into Iraq, as long as they were British - probably a result of the fact that American members of the UNSCOM team have since admitted illegally passing secrets about Iraq back from the United Nations to the CIA. As one former member of UNSCOM put it, "We would have been insane not to take advantage of it." [5] Incredibly, the Bush administration continues to claim that UNSCOM was forced to leave because of Saddam's manoeuvring when in fact it was withdrawn by the UN because its neutrality was compromised.

Throughout the summer, Iraqi requests for talks continued. In August, it invited the United Nations chief weapons inspector to Baghdad for technical talks "to establish a solid basis for the next stage of the monitoring and inspection activities and to move forward to that next stage." The next day this was rejected outright by the US and Britain as a mere ploy. [6] That same month, a top Iraqi official took journalists to a site near Baghdad that American officials claimed was a biological weapons facility but which turned out to be a food warehouse. No comment was forthcoming from the Bush administration. [7]

Moreover, America's two leading hawks - Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz - have led attempts to undermine the inspectors in case they do enter Iraq, thus removing a pretext for war. In January, the same month that Iraq was named as part of the 'axis of evil,' Wolfowitz asked the CIA to investigate Hans Blix, chairman of the new inspection team, UNMOVIC, and reportedly 'hit the ceiling' when the CIA found insufficient evidence to undermine him. [8] Donald Rumsfeld has added several times that he does not believe that new U.N. inspections would build confidence that Saddam is not developing WMD and he has made it clear that the goal of the administration is "regime change." [9]

Similarly, the US ousted José Bustani, former head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons because of fears that his inspectors might have been allowed back into Iraq, as Bustani favoured - they were allowed to stay when UNSCOM left in 1998. The US ambassador to the OPCW charged Bustani with mismanagement but was booed when he failed to produce any documentary evidence. He even illegally voted on behalf of another nation at the deciding ballot and claims abounded that the US had made it known that unless others supported its motion of no confidence in Bustani, it would withhold its financial contribution to the OPCW. Since it is the largest contributor by far, this could have meant the OPCW going under completely. Bustani stormed out of the conference hall claiming the vote lacked a legal basis. This is the first time that the head of an international organisation has been dismissed during his term in office. After a two-week visit to Iraq in July 2002, Hans von Sponeck, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Iraq from 1998-2000, claimed that the Department of Defence and the CIA "know perfectly well that today's Iraq poses no threat to anyone... let alone the United States... Is it really too far-fetched to suggest that the US government does not want UN arms inspectors back in Iraq?" Von Sponeck called on Iraq to "call Bush's bluff" and allow inspectors unfettered access. [10]

On 17 September, that is exactly what happened. In a letter to the UN Naji Sabri, the Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs, announced the decision "to allow the return of the United Nations weapons inspectors to Iraq without conditions." [11] For months, George Bush has demanded that Saddam agree to such inspections, and now that he has, the offer has been fobbed off as a tactical ploy, just Saddam "playing games again." The US has been reduced to relying on excuses as pathetic as the fact that inspections would take "months." Would the only alternative - war - not take months? Has the war in Afghanistan not taken months? [12] Without even investigating the offer, Colin Powell assures us that "We've seen this game before." [13] These do not seem to be the actions of a government which, as it would have us believe, is striving to enforce the UN resolutions. So why the sudden fondness for the UN?

An appeal to the United Nations could shore up support for an attack on Iraq in Europe and, perhaps most importantly, in Russia. For these countries, the UN route provides legitimacy, without which they would be unlikely to support a US-led attack and without that support the US remains open to accusations of unilateralism. (But, be warned: if the UN does not toe the line of the Bush administration, it will become "irrelevant.") [14] However, Germany's Gerhard Schröder has made it clear that he will not support an attack at all. France and Russia, as permanent members of the Security Council, both have a veto on any resolutions. Russia, in particular, will want guarantees that her oil investments in Iraq will be protected. The US will need to tread carefully if any new resolutions are to be passed.

The UN route also serves to legitimise the case for war to the American public. There has been talk in the US press recently that the Bush administration has not made the case for war to the public properly. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had also voiced concerns that little evidence had been produced and there have been concerns that diplomacy has not been exhausted. [15] In September, the New York Times reported that White House officials had formulated "a meticulously planned strategy to persuade the public [and] Congress... to confront the threat from Saddam." By being seen to invoke international law and make every attempt to enforce the will of the Security Council, Bush can claim that he really did try everything before sending American troops into battle.

Moreover, the Pentagon has spent at least the last eight months discussing possible plans to attack Iraq and remove Saddam. Is it so unrealistic to suggest that they now have a plan and simply need a trigger for an attack? If Saddam were to reject or set conditions for UN inspections, as the administration had expected, it would be the perfect pretext. [16]

This also coincides with a more determined effort to find proof that Saddam is actually manufacturing weapons of mass destruction. However, the evidence requires very selective reading if we are to accept the imminent threat claimed by the US. The recent dossier produced by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London told us that if Saddam had access to the relevant equipment and if he had radioactive material (which he does not), then he could produce a nuclear bomb. It actually concluded that "it seems unlikely that Iraq has produced or is close to producing nuclear weapons from indigenously produced nuclear material." Yet such is the effect of government and media spin that it was cited as proof that Iraq is an imminent danger. [17] The CIA's own reports up to and even beyond 9/11 also state time and again that there is no "direct evidence that Iraq has used the period since Desert Fox to reconstitute its weapons of mass destruction programmes." They also state frequently that whatever weapons Iraq does seek, they would be for "deterrence" and that "regional concerns [are] one of the primary factors in tailoring [their] programme." [18] Tony Blair's claim that "We need only to look at the report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) showing what's been going on" in Iraq was immediately rebuffed by the IAEA which stated that it did not any new have evidence that Saddam was developing a nuclear programme. [19]

However, for the US, the most important issue is not whether Saddam has weapons of mass destruction, but simply that it has a pretext to enter Iraq. Despite the rhetorical flourishes about democracy and freedom, the goal of US policy is the same one that has been pursued aggressively for the last eighty years in the Middle East: control of oil supplies. One of the most salient examples of intervention came in 1953 when the US and Britain toppled the Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadegh who planned to nationalise their oil interests in Iran. Mossadegh was replaced by the American puppet, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, who guarded their oil interests and ruled by US-financed oppression. America currently offers similar diplomatic and financial support to other Middle East countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait. [20]

Similarly, the aim in Iraq is to topple Saddam and replace him with a pro-American leader who will give the lion's share of Iraqi oil to US companies (which are not unconnected to the Bush administration either [21]). Weapons inspections are simply irrelevant because the issue is not weapons of mass destruction. They are a side-show, there only to ensure that the US has a pretext to intervene. Regime change is the only issue for Washington and to achieve this the inspectors must be kept out. Any offer Saddam makes must be discredited. Even Mo Mowlam, a former member of Tony Blair's cabinet, recently admitted this and, furthermore, charged that it was the government's intention to aid America in seizing Saudi oil fields because of concern over increasing anti-American feeling in Saudi Arabia and the possibility that the oppressive, US-backed government could find it increasingly difficult to control the country. The same claim has been made by British Labour MP George Galloway. [22]

Our television screens and newspapers are currently filled with speculation on whether inspections will take place, what the timetable could be, what they might discover and so forth. This is pointless. Trying to convince George Bush that he still has a chance to avoid war by giving the inspections one last chance is futile because it was never America's intention that inspectors be allowed back in. If disarming Saddam was America's aim, then inspections would serve a purpose, but the fact is that inspectors will not give America's leading hawks what they want. If, by some twist of diplomacy, Bush faces no choice but allow UNMOVIC into Iraq, then recent precedents would suggest that attempts would be made to undermine it and its findings in order to justify an attack.

So, where does all this leave the long-suffering people of Iraq? Many have suggested that for their sakes the West is morally obliged to rid them of a bloody dictator. But, heinous as we may find Saddam's crimes, it is not good enough reason to topple another government because it happens to be inimical to our own interests and values. If Bush's logic is applied, there is nothing to stop a Middle Eastern government toppling the US or British government because they consider it a threat to themselves. And, interestingly, Bush does not apply the same logic to Palestinian groups opposed to the Israeli government. International law will only be effective if it is applied equally and consistently.

Perhaps the best way to induce change in the regime would be to stop treating it in such a punitive and hypocritical manner. A policy of constructive engagement could be the best way to influence the Iraqi leadership. Rhetoric which increases hostility pushes countries like Iraq further and further away from the international community which makes them even less inclined to take any notice of anything it says. Alternatively, if the Iraqi people were to overthrow Saddam themselves, this might engender a collective sense of empowerment amongst the people, a belief - so vital to democracy - that ordinary people matter, that their views can really affect the government and that even a tyrant can be held to account eventually. Doing it for themselves might contribute to the foundations of democratic political culture; and in such a scenario, any western support would only be conducive to future stability if it was given in a genuinely altruistic manner. But for Saddam to be replaced from without and from on-high by another unelected leader can only increase the sense of helplessness and isolation from the government among ordinary Iraqis.

However, even if there is only the barest semblance of democracy in Iraq, it will do for the US hawks. Today's Afghanistan is the perfect example. Hamid Karzai, placed in power by the Americans, cannot command the respect of the whole of the country and "warlordism" reigns supreme. The much heralded "loya jirga" was marred by reports that sixty to seventy delegates walked out in protest because of the lack of free voting on matters such as the election of their next president. As Seema Samar, the interim women's affairs minister put it, "This is not a democracy; it is a rubber stamp. Everything has already been decided by the powerful ones." [23] For the Iraqis, too, another thug in power will be fine, as long as he is compliant and pro-American.

Even if the US cannot bend the United Nations to its will, it will press ahead anyway. This was reinforced on 21 September 2002 when the Bush administration released a study entitled "The National Security of the United States of America" which states that, from now on, the US will not hesitate to act alone and use pre-emptive force against it enemies and it will not allow an adversarial military power to rise. [24] Bush's frightening warning that the UN may be on the way to irrelevancy could be true. Certainly, on the evidence of the past year, it is not our supranational world body which is laying down the law, but one country, the Unilateral States of America.


1 'Bush sets the war clock ticking,' Guardian, 13 September 2002. [Back]
2 On the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, see 'American nuclear scientists tell Bush to ratify test treaty,' Guardian, 1 August 2002. On the biological weapons inspections, see 'US spurns chemical weapons ban,' Guardian, 21 May 2001. On the OPCW, see 'Chemical coup,' by George Monbiot, available at www.counterpunch.org/monbiot0417.html [Back]
3 The ICC and Guantanamo bay have been widely covered in the press, but for the torture convention, see 'US threatens to block torture convention,' Guardian, 25 July 2002. George Bush's quiet admission that global warming exits is contained in 'It's official, global warming does exist, says Bush,' Guardian, 4 June 2002. [Back]
4 See 'Iraq proposes UN talks, gets a wary reply,' New York Times, 5 February 2002. [Back]
5 Rejection of British weapons inspectors is buried deep at the end of 'Iraq and UN hold first high level talks in a year,' New York Times, 7 March 2002. For UNSCOM's involvement with the CIA, see 'Spying on Saddam: UNSCOM's relationship with Western intelligence agencies,' available at www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/unscom/experts/faustian.html [Back]
6 'Iraq invited weapons inspector to talks,' Guardian, 2 August 2002 and 'Britain and US dismiss Iraqi offer,' Guardian, 3 August 2002. [Back]
7 See 'Iraq gives second tour of a suspect site,' Washington Post, 21 August 2002. [Back]
8 See 'Skirmish on Iraq inspections: Wolfowitz had CIA probe UN diplomat in charge,' Washington Post, 15 April 2002. [Back]
9 Rumsfeld has often made such comments, see for instance, 'Rumsfeld disputes value of Iraq arms inspections,' Washington Post, 16 April 2002. [Back]
10 Monbiot, 'Chemical coup' and his 'Diplomacy US style,' Guardian, 23 April 2002. Hans von Sponeck, 'Go on, call Bush's bluff,' Guardian, 22 July 2002. [Back]
11 'What Baghdad said in letter to Kofi Annan,' Guardian, 17 September 2002. [Back]
12 'Inspections in Iraq would take months,' Washington Post, 18 September 2002. [Back]
13 Powell quoted in 'Bush: Saddam's trying to fool us,' Guardian, 18 September 2002. [Back]
14 'Bush sets the war clock ticking,' Guardian, 13 September 2002. [Back]
15 'Bush aides set strategy to sell policy on Iraq,' New York Times, 7 September 2002; 'In Senate, a call for answers and a warning on the future; focus on Iraq criticized,' New York Times, 10 September 2002. [Back]
16 On 21 September the New York Times reported that 'Bush has received Pentagon options for attacking Iraq.' [Back]
17 'Iraq could build nuclear weapon in months,' Guardian, 9 September 2002. [Back]
18 Since 1997, the CIA has produced eight 'Reports to Congress on the acquisition of technology related to weapons of mass destruction and advanced conventional munitions.' All are available at www.cia.gov/cia/publications The site also contains recent unclassified versions of National Intelligence Estimates from September 1999, available at www.cia.gov/cia/publications/nie/nie99msl.html and December 2001 available at www.cia.gov/nic/pubs/other_products/Unclassifiedballisticmissilefinal.htm For a brief analysis of their content, see Scott Lucas & Maria Ryan, 'The Manufacture of Fear: 9/11, Intelligence and the Axis of Evil' (www.nthposition.com/politics_lucas_ryan.html) [Back]
19 'Doubt cast on PM's "nuclear threat" claim,' Guardian, 9 September 2002. [Back]
20 For the best account of the Iranian coup, see James A Bill, The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations (New Haven & London, 1988). For the basis of US support for other Middle Eastern regimes, see Bill Christison, 'Oil and the Middle East: Why US foreign policy has to change,' available at www.counterpunch.org/christison2.html [Back]
21 For the oil interests of the Bush administration, see Michael Griffin's excellent chapter 'Oil and Troubled Waters' in the forthcoming revised edition of 'Reaping the whirlwind: The Taliban movement in Afghanistan' (Pluto Press) [Back]
22 See Paul Moorcroft's 'The Secret Partition,' New Statesman, 5 August 2002, p.22 and Mo Mowlam, 'The real goal is the seizure of Saudi oil,' Guardian, 5 September 2002. [Back]
23 See 'Disillusioned delegates walk out of loya jirga,' Guardian, 12 June 2002 and 'Delegate Frustrated as Afghan Council Nears End,' Washington Post, 17 June 2002. [Back]
24 The new national security strategy reported in 'Bush Shifts Strategy from Deterrence to Dominance,' Washington Post, 21 September 2002. [Back]