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June 06, 2007

Was Iraq Going To Be Certified WMD-Free In 1997?

Andrew Cockburn, co-author of Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein and author of Rumsfeld, told this amazing story recently on Radio:

COCKBURN: March 26, 1997 was a very important day in the history of Iraq. That's when Madeleine Albright announced that economic sanctions would remain...whether or not Iraq was found to have any more weapons of mass destruction. It didn't matter. We were going to keep sanctions on regardless. And I happen to know -- I found out recently the reason why she said that: which was that Rolf Ekeus, who was then the chief UN weapons inspector, was about to say that Iraq was now free of WMD. Okay? And this is an Antiwar Radio exclusive, I might tell you.

Rolf Ekeus was about to certify that Iraq was now free of WMD. The Clinton administration was panicked -- because if he said that, then economic sanctions would have to be lifted. Then the right wing here would say: ah, Bill Clinton let Saddam get back on his feet! And the Israeli lobby would be up in arms. So the solution was for Madeleine Albright to declare this policy, in which case they knew what would happen. Saddam would say, well, heck, I'm not going to cooperate with the UN anymore if it doesn't matter whether I comply or not, why should I let your inspectors run around the country -- who he well knew, as a lot of other people knew, were heavily infiltrated by the CIA and MI6 -- let all these Western spies run around, if there's nothing in it for me? So therefore I'm stopping cooperating.

And that's why he stopped cooperating. That was a predictable and, you know, looked for result, he stopped cooperating with the UN inspectors, so they pulled out, and [the US] said, oh, we don't know, he's kicked out the UN, we don't know what he's up to! And that really set the stage for 2003.

HORTON: And even for Operation Desert Fox in 1998.

COCKBURN: Right. The last thing they wanted was a certification, was clear evidence that Saddam didn't have any weapons.

Cockburn has also written a brief article about this, in which he quotes Ekeus saying "I was getting close to certifying that Iraq was in compliance with Resolution 687." Hopefully Cockburn will expand on this in the future, because it's an extremely important part of what happened. Here's some context for people not familiar with the details:

According to the relevant UN resolutions, the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq (beginning in 1990 after the invasion of Kuwait and maintained at the end of the Gulf War) would be lifted when Iraq was certified to have been disarmed of WMD.

However, the US said immediately after the Gulf War that the sanctions would remain until Iraqis kicked Saddam out. Here's Robert Gates (then National Security Adviser, now Secretary of Defense) speaking in April, 1991:

All possible sanctions will be maintained until he is gone. Any easing of sanctions will be considered only when there is a new government.

Before taking office, Clinton emphasized his policy was the same as the Bush administration's.

Saddam's regime made it easy on the US by lying—not about weapons they still possessed, but about what they'd produced pre-91. Meanwhile, they secretly destroyed these weapons soon after the Gulf War.

However, by the mid-nineties, Iraq's lies had been uncovered by UNSCOM. And Hussein Kamel, the man who'd run Iraq's WMD programs, defected in 1995 and told UNSCOM that Iraq had nothing.

Just days afterward Richard Haass, prominent in Republican national security circles (and now head of the Council on Foreign Relations) appeared on a panel with Kanan Makiya at the Washington Institute on Near East Policy. This excerpt of what he said is long, but it's all worth reading:

HAASS: Sanctions cannot get rid of Saddam Hussein, but they can create the context in which that sort of thing can happen. Meanwhile, even if that doesn't happen, sanctions keep Saddam down...

I think we have to guard against the possibility that one day we may not be able to keep the French and Russians in line, that, if you will, Saddam does comply with so much of -- with -- you know, of the resolutions, that the United States can't sustain the policy, and I think we have to have in our hip pocket what would be a fallback strategy at that point...

We are clearly in favor of regime change...[but] there's no reference anywhere in any U.N. resolution to regime change. And for the United States in the past, when we have talked about trying to keep sanctions in place so long as Saddam is in power, that might be something the United States wants, but we're on political and legal thin ice when we say that because, alas, others don't agree with us, particularly the French and the Russians, and they do have the text [of the UN resolutions] to support them.

Q Dr. Haass, you expressed optimism that the defections would actually keep the sanctions going longer than otherwise. But if you look at what Ekeus just said yesterday or today, he actually sounded positively enthusiastic, in his own Scandanavian way, of course, about the -- (laughter) -- about the Iraqi report that was just received, and it seems possible by November there will be already a positive report from Ekeus that might bring the Europeans to want to remove the sanctions.

On the other hand, the American arguments have not worked with regard to the other resolutions. Can you think of any, or can anybody think of any, creative ways to come up with new arguments that might persuade Europeans to keep the sanctions beyond that date?

HAASS: Oh, I'm not worried about keeping sanctions beyond November. I think that won't be terribly difficult. Even if Mr. Ekeus is convinced is convinced that by now the Iraqis have not simply shown another layer but they have not revealed everything, then a period of time would have to pass so we'd have a monitoring period, roughly, say, six months, whatever, before sanctions would be lifted. So I think the big debate on sanctions doesn't happen this fall, it probably happens next spring...

It's possible at some point the United States will find itself totally isolated. And then, as I suggested earlier, then I think we'll have to start thinking about fallbacks...

And indeed the US did find itself isolated by 1997. UNSCOM was not finding evidence that Iraq was hiding anything, and on the UN Security Council only the US and England favored the continuation of sanctions. And so Albright, who'd just become Secretary of State, went to Georgetown and said this:

We do not agree with the nations who argue that if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted. Our view, which is unshakable, is that Iraq must prove its peaceful intentions...And the evidence is overwhelming that Saddam Hussein's intentions will never be peaceful...

Clearly, a change in Iraq's government could lead to a change in U.S. policy. Should that occur, we would stand ready, in coordination with our allies and friends, to enter rapidly into a dialogue with the successor regime.

And that was that. Ekeus was replaced as head of UNSCOM by Richard Butler in July, 1997. Relations between UNSCOM and Iraq worsened, with Iraq more frequently blocking access to "presidential sites." The US continually threatened bombings in reprisal, which finally happened in Operation Desert Fox in December, 1998.

UN inspectors never returned until fall, 2002 in the run up to war. And just as under Clinton, they were there simply as a pretext to make regime change possible.

(Thanks to Seth Ackerman for pointing out the Haass appearance.)

Posted at June 6, 2007 02:30 PM | TrackBack

Just shoot me. If I'm not messing up links it's something like this.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at June 6, 2007 04:11 PM

Not twice, but thrice!

Posted by: Mike at June 6, 2007 04:11 PM

"The Clinton administration was panicked -- because if he said that, then economic sanctions would have to be lifted. Then the right wing here would say: ah, Bill Clinton let Saddam get back on his feet! And the Israeli lobby would be up in arms. So the solution was for Madeleine Albright to declare this policy, in which case they knew what would happen."

Hilary didn't have to read the NIE in 2002 to realize that Saddam did not pose a significant threat. She already knew that. Her husband knew that. But they also knew a lot about the domestic politics surrounding all of this. She knew, firsthand, that it would be better to act as if he were a threat because certain constituencies demanded it and because backing down would make her look weak. Her votes and her present stance on Iraq are very consistent with this critical piece of Clinton history.

Thanks, Jonathan.

Posted by: at June 6, 2007 04:27 PM

How does this fit with the theory that Saddam was afraid to let Iran know he didn't have any WMD?

Saddam, no less than Clinton, might have been reluctant to see a clean bill of health issued.

(Is it "clean" or "clear," btw?)

Posted by: Anderson at June 6, 2007 04:31 PM

When does a weapon (W) become a weapon of mass destruction (WMD)? Who defines what a "mass" has to be ? (Before it is destroyed, natch.)
More than 100 peoople make a mass? A weapon that can be fired 5 times to "get" 20 each time, a mere W or a WMD?
Not entirely in jest. This is, always has been, insane. We've learned nothing from WWI, WWII, Vietnam, Iraq --from the bloodiest century in history.
I'm coming back, if certification is available, as a goat or dolphin.
Homo sapiens, what a misnomer.

Posted by: donescobar at June 6, 2007 07:50 PM

Excellent point about Sen. Clinton, no-name at 4:27.

Jonathan, thanks very much for this post and pointer to Cockburn's interview.

Posted by: Nell at June 6, 2007 08:24 PM

Aparently AMERICA loves to fuck Iraq and slaughter Iraqis, wholesale. ( WE'VE been doing them for a LONG, LONG TIME. and WE WILL be doing them for a LONG LONG TIME to come. Look at it as an AMERICAN TRADITION, you know, like a hazzing in college, frat week, only FOREVER)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 6, 2007 10:34 PM

Yes, thank you for posting this. I was immediately reminded of what Hillary said in the debate that I did not watch (my turtle got stuck in the toilet while doing a few laps and I had to call 911) about what that certain difference between the democrats and the republicans is which until that moment had escaped my notice so I am ever so glad Hillary highlighted that for us.

Posted by: rob payne at June 7, 2007 12:26 AM

Scott Ritter wrote a book about this topic as well. He reported that the U.S. policy was to continue sanctions and inspections indefinitely until the regime fell.

Posted by: Justin at June 7, 2007 08:02 AM