Hans Blix

Incompetent bureaucrat or cowardly diplomat?

Illustration by Charlie Powell

When the United Nations named Hans Blix its chief weapons inspector, it chose a henhouse to guard the fox. Blix’s record suggests that he’s too cautious, too respectful of Iraq’s official pronouncements, and too concerned with diplomatic niceties to carry out the kind of forceful inspections needed to disarm Iraq. American hawks fret that Blix’s desire to avoid war will lead him to tolerate small acts of deception by Saddam Hussein, drawing out the weapons-inspection process and deflating the international consensus on the need to topple the Iraqi dictator. But American doves may have more reason to worry: It’s just as likely that Blix will give President Bush a valid reason to go to war.

If Blix’s goal was to lower expectations before his team begins searching Iraq tomorrow for hidden caches of chemical and biological weapons, he’s done a masterful job. Time and again, he and his aides have stressed that they will not “humiliate, harass, or provoke” the Iraqi government. “We always stress the importance of being proper,” Blix told the New York Times. “That doesn’t mean timid—not at all. But yes, [inspectors] must be respectful in all their work.” To that end, Blix’s team has taken “cultural sensitivity” courses to teach them how not to offend Iraqis, and they are expected to begin Wednesday by examining sites that won’t produce any evidence.

During the 74-year-old Blix’s tenure as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency—the U.N. organization that enforces compliance with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty—from 1981 to 1997, the Swedish diplomat developed a reputation as Mr. Magoo crossed with Inspector Clouseau. His most dramatic failure occurred when IAEA failed to uncover Iraq’s nuclear program during the late 1980s. As Blix told the Guardian earlier this year, “It’s correct to say that the IAEA was fooled by the Iraqis.” When the Security Council settled on Blix as chief weapons inspector in 2000 (reportedly as the committee’s 24th choice), the New York Times editorial page blasted him as a “man of uncertain resolve,” a “disappointing choice,” and “a disturbing sign that the international community lacks the determination to rebuild an effective arms inspection system in Iraq.”

The Times’ criticism seems mild when compared to the insults that have been hurled at Blix over the past month. The debate resolution appears to be, “Hans Blix: Incompetent bureaucrat or cowardly diplomat?” He has an “unsurpassed record of failure in dealing with Saddam Hussein,” wrote Gary Milhollin of the Wisconsin Program on Nuclear Arms Control in the Wall Street Journal. Paul Leventhal of the Nuclear Control Institute questioned whether Blix “has the backbone to be confrontational … the first requirement for effective inspections.” Former weapons inspector David Albright complained that he is a man who “ran a toothless agency.” But the topper came from Sweden’s former deputy prime minister Per Ahlmark in the Washington Times, who wrote that Blix was “weak and easily fooled,” “easily misled,” and “a wimp.” “I can think of few European officials less suitable for a showdown with Saddam,” Ahlmark concluded. This morning on CNN, even former chief weapons inspector Richard Butler admitted that in the past, Blix “turned a bit of a blind eye to some things that maybe he shouldn’t have.”

There is some evidence—though not much—that Blix won’t be awful. After being deceived by Iraq in the 1980s, Blix demanded new, tougher IAEA inspection guidelines, such as the right to unannounced “pop quiz” searches. He used those tools to uncover North Korea’s nuclear program in the 1990s, leading the United States and North Korea to the brink of war. So far, Blix hasn’t shown any signs of being very tough with Iraq—for example, he says he doesn’t plan to take Iraqi scientists and their families out of the country for interviews (where they could testify without fear of reprisals). But he may change his mind. The inspections that begin tomorrow are the equivalent of football training camp—inspections without pads. The real game won’t start until after Iraq issues its Dec. 8 declaration of its “full and complete” chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs.

At that point, the United States will likely demand spot inspections of weapons sites that its intelligence suggests were left off the list. And when that happens, the hawks may actually prefer Blix to a strong, forceful inspector. After all, most of them opposed the return of inspectors to Iraq in the first place. Iraq surely has the edge in its game of hide-the-smallpox—many experts believe its biological weapons program has “gone mobile” by being placed on roving Winnebagos that a team of merely 100 weapons inspectors can’t hope to find. Nor do hawks evince much confidence that any weapons inspector, much less Blix, can turn up documents stored on CD-ROMs that might be hidden anywhere in the country.

If you’re a hawk who believes that a war that topples Saddam is the ideal conclusion of the weapons-inspection process, the best-case scenario is a strong inspector who turns up clear and convincing evidence of Iraq’s weapons programs. But few expect that to happen, no matter who’s in charge. The next-best option for hawks is someone like Blix—a man whose record of incompetence can be publicized and whose conclusions, if necessary, can be easily cast into doubt. President Bush won’t need a pretext for war if Blix doesn’t faithfully execute the mandate given to him by the Security Council. He’ll have a real reason. Either way, the hawks win: If Blix finds weapons or complains of Iraqi non-compliance, that’s a “material breach” that will justify war. If Blix finds nothing, the administration can point to his incompetence and go in anyway.

For hawks, the worst-case scenario is actually a strong inspector who, without finding incontrovertible evidence of an Iraqi weapons program, succeeds in convincing large numbers of people that Iraq has been disarmed or at least disarmed enough. That’s one reason hawks fear inspections. But luckily for them, Hans Blix doesn’t much like inspections either.