UN Chief Averts War with Iraq

For a diplomat, words are everything, and the world's top diplomat had reason to regret some of his last week. Kofi Annan, the United Nations' secretary general, was flying back from Baghdad after negotiating the arms-inspection deal that averted a new American attack on Iraq.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 9, 1998

For a diplomat, words are everything, and the world's top diplomat had reason to regret some of his last week. Kofi Annan, the United Nations' secretary general, was flying back from Baghdad after negotiating the arms-inspection deal that averted a new American attack on Iraq.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 9, 1998

UN Chief Averts War with Iraq

For a diplomat, words are everything, and the world's top diplomat had reason to regret some of his last week. Kofi Annan, the United Nations' secretary general, was flying back from Baghdad after negotiating the arms-inspection deal that averted a new American attack on Iraq. Aboard the Concorde on the last leg of his journey from Paris to New York City, he spoke to a reporter and criticized the UN inspectors who have been trying to track down Iraq's chemical and biological weapons. Sometimes, Annan said, they embarrass Iraqi officials, push too hard, even act like "cowboys." It was exactly the wrong thing to say as far as one former inspector, David Kay, was concerned. Though he hails from Houston, where being called a cowboy is usually a compliment, Kay took offence - so much so that he went public to denounce the deal and the secretary general. "I'm appalled," he said. "It was an incredible piece of bad leadership."

One disgruntled inspector might not count for much. But at a time when doubts about the accord that Annan brought back triumphantly from Baghdad seemed to be growing by the day, Kay was quickly joined by other well-informed critics. The secretary general barely had time to acknowledge the cheers of staff members who lined up to applaud him as he arrived back at UN headquarters beside the East River in Manhattan before the questions started flying. How, the critics pointedly asked, will the new inspection system that Annan worked out during three days of tense talks in Baghdad really function? Who will form the special group of diplomats that will work with the inspectors to soothe Iraqi sensibilities? When will they be able to test the system? And, perhaps most crucially, why should the world expect Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to abide by this agreement after flouting others for so long?

Man of the hour or a dictator's dupe? For many, at the United Nations and elsewhere, Annan had clearly scored a victory by heading off a military strike that would have resulted in many Iraqi deaths, brought Saddam wider sympathy around the world, and almost certainly ended the UN arms inspection regime for good. The deal he brokered allowed Washington to draw back from an expensive and risky military action that well might have turned into a fiasco. "Kofi Annan did exactly what he should do, and did it well, which is avoid the use of force if you can," Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy told Maclean's. Others, especially in Washington where skepticism about the United Nations always runs high, painted the secretary general in exactly the opposite terms - as someone who allowed himself to be snookered by Saddam. "It is always possible to get a deal if you give enough away," complained Trent Lott, leader of the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate. "We cannot afford peace at any price." Added Representative Gerald Solomon, a New York Republican: "Kofi Annan really sold us down the drain."

Almost lost in the torrent of criticism was that Annan was acting within strict guidelines set by the UN Security Council - including the United States. And days before he left for Baghdad, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright flew to New York for a secret meeting with him to make absolutely clear that Washington would accept nothing less than "full and unfettered" access for UN inspectors to all sites that might house forbidden Iraqi weapons - without any time limits or added conditions. The seven-point accord that Annan brought back reaffirms that principle, but adds an important wrinkle. It provides that inspectors visiting eight so-called presidential sites designated by the Iraqis be accompanied by senior diplomats as part of a "special group" headed by a commissioner named by the secretary general. The United Nations' undersecretary for disarmament, Sri Lankan diplomat Jayantha Dhanapala, will fill that role.

The eight sites are at the centre of the current crisis. Iraq declared them off-limits to inspectors from UNSCOM, the UN commission set up to enforce the disarmament of Iraq - prompting Washington to step up its threats of military action. The question last week was whether adding diplomats to the mix will make it harder for the inspectors to carry out their job. UN officials argued that the diplomats will not interfere with or delay the inspectors' mission - but are simply a way to resume inspections while acknowledging Iraqi sensitivity. Importantly, Richard Butler, UNSCOM's respected Australian chief inspector, said he was satisfied with the deal.

But many critics, Kay among them, were not reassured. How, he asked in an interview with Maclean's, would the new "diplomatic nannies" avoid getting in the way of what has always been a difficult job? Kay led the initial team of UN weapons inspectors into Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, when Saddam's regime first promised to abide by Security Council resolutions requiring it to disclose and destroy all weapons of mass destruction - meaning chemical, biological and nuclear arms, as well as long-range missiles. Right from the start, he said, the Iraqis systematically "lied, cheated and deceived," forcing the inspectors to act in less-than-diplomatic ways to get their job done. Requiring them to work in tandem with diplomats committed to respecting the "national security, sovereignty and dignity" of Iraq, as spelled out in the new accord, will only undermine their work, he said. And slowing down the inspection process could prove fatal. "The essence of success has always been time-sensitive inspections," said Kay. "If you get there before the Iraqis know you're going there, you have a chance. If they know you're going there, you don't have a chance."

Almost as controversial as the agreement was some of the language that Annan used when he returned to UN headquarters. Having already criticized the behavior of some weapons inspectors, he now offered a careful assessment of Saddam. Asked whether he could trust the Iraqi leader, Annan paused and then said: "I think I can do business with him, and I think he was serious." Saddam, he added, was calm, well-informed and decisive. In Washington, where the Iraqi is routinely described as a modern-day Hitler or a "cancer," that was greeted as tantamount to endorsing the dictator. Even at the United Nations, reaction was not entirely positive: some of the arms inspectors, watching Annan's remarks on television in their offices on the 30th floor of the headquarters building, walked out in protest when he said they should not "push their weight around" in Iraq.

Albright and other U.S. officials faced an uphill battle in arguing that the agreement should be given a chance to work. President Bill Clinton granted his cautious support, but made it clear that if Iraq does not allow the deal to be fully implemented - what he labelled "the big if" - the United States reserves the right to respond "at a time, place and manner of our choosing." Lest there be any doubt about what that means, Clinton ordered the American armada of 30,000 troops, three aircraft carriers and 350 warplanes to stay in the Gulf. Canada's modest contribution - the frigate HMCS Toronto and two Hercules refuelling planes - arrived in the region last week and are to stay for three months. The planes will be based in Kuwait.

Despite the second-guessing in Washington, the accord represents by far the most significant accomplishment of Annan's 14-month tenure as secretary general - as well as a much-needed boost for the United Nations. When he took over on Jan. 1, 1997, the organization was badly demoralized. The United States had just forced out his predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt. Annan, a 59-year-old career UN official from Ghana, came in with Washington's explicit backing - a decidedly mixed blessing. He spent most of last year working on internal reforms, partly to appease the United Nations' American critics who say the organization must get its house in order before Washington pays the $1.4 billion it owes in back dues. Faced with such deep suspicion from its most powerful member, the United Nations looked hamstrung.

Annan's Baghdad mission put the United Nations at centre stage for the first time in years. He clearly enjoys more confidence from Washington than did other secretaries general; Albright, in fact, effectively engineered his appointment while she was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. And those who know Annan say his understated manner should not be mistaken for weakness. A senior official at the United Nations pointed out last week that as head of the organization's peacekeeping unit in the early '90s, Annan dealt with "all the worst characters" in such blood-soaked trouble spots as Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda - as well as Iraq itself after the Gulf War. "This is not a naïve guy we've got here," said the official.

Annan himself, asked last week if a quiet, calm man like himself was "tough enough" to deal with Saddam, replied: "It's the inner strength that counts." Mark Malloch Brown, who worked closely with Annan at the United Nations for much of the past 20 years and is now vice-president of the World Bank in Washington, admiringly calls him "a very cool customer - always striking for his calmness and discipline." Annan, adds Malloch Brown, is a "very strategic negotiator; he knows when to push on one side, and when to push on the other." The result in Baghdad, says Stephen Lewis, Canadian ambassador to the United Nations in the mid-1980s and now deputy executive director of UNICEF in New York, was a victory for the international organization at a time when it needs one. "He has given the United Nations a voice again," said Lewis. "Now, perhaps the scorn and the mockery and the dismissiveness will stop."

Probably not - at least in Washington, where the United Nations is often viewed as at best ineffectual, at worst an impediment to pursuing American interests abroad. In fact, the debate in the U.S. capital is increasingly about whether to take a much more aggressive stance against Saddam. Republicans, in particular, are pushing Clinton to devise plans to undermine his regime or even oust him from power. Leaked details appeared last week of an ambitious CIA plan for sabotage and subversion against Saddam, by supporting his opponents inside Iraq and encouraging other Iraqi leaders to rebel against him. Most analysts doubt that would be effective - but the message was clear. If Saddam fails to live up to the latest agreement, he will not get another chance to duck the punch from Washington.

On the Trail of the Deadliest Weapons

Ottawa microbiologist Ken Johnson remembers well his first visit as a UN arms inspector to an Iraqi plant suspected of producing deadly biological weapons. "We all got a chilly feeling as soon as we got there," Johnson said last week. "We knew the facility could not possibly be what they said. Their claim that it was a poultry-feed production centre was ridiculous and we knew it." That was in April, 1994, early on in Johnson's stint as a member of UNSCOM, the inspection team charged since the end of the Gulf War in 1991 with ensuring that Iraq no longer has any major weapons, including chemical, biological or nuclear arms. Now working in the defence department's research and development branch, Johnson, 52, took part in nine missions between 1994 and 1996 and also served on the UN team in New York City that planned subsequent inspections. His experiences, he says, have convinced him that the Iraqi authorities rarely tell the truth. "It's a grind and find process," he says.

The plant he visited in 1994 turned out to be the now-notorious Al Hakam factory, a major centre for producing deadly anthrax and other biological poisons. It was a huge complex in the desert southwest of Baghdad, three kilometres by six kilometres - "all painted with camouflage," says Johnson. "It certainly didn't look very agricultural." But the inspectors' attempts to prove their suspicions got nowhere until the following year, when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Hussein Kamal, suddenly defected to Jordan. Kamal had been in charge of Iraq's weapons procurement, and Iraqi officials sought to pin the blame on him for mounting a program they supposedly knew nothing about. Baghdad turned over a trove of documents. "The papers we got weighed about half a ton," says Johnson. "It took six months of research and translation. The data showed that there were orders from the chain of command asking for anthrax and chemical weapons. There were also duplicates of orders and letters of credit - a lot of forensic and legal evidence."

Johnson has some concerns about UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's pact with Saddam, under which diplomats will accompany inspectors to certain sites. "The inspectors know about the things being looked for," he says. "But diplomats?" His greatest fear, however, remains the prospect of Iraq developing biological weapons, particularly anthrax. "Five litres could wipe out Toronto," he notes. "And it's not only deadly, it is also cheap." He sympathizes with the Iraqi people, whom he found generous and polite despite their suffering. "They are," says Johnson grimly, "being held for ransom by their own leader."

Maclean's March 9, 1998