Hans Blix: The engineer of peace
Image credit: Hans Blix
At a time of huge tensions in the world, Hans Blix, former UN weapons inspector, tells stories about war, peace, and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Sweden has long been an outpost of peace in Europe. The Nordic country has not experienced war in over 200 years. In the 20th century, Swedish statesmen have been great peace brokers and humanitarians.
I am in Stockholm to interview perhaps the last of their breed, Hans Blix. Former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the former Iraq War weapons inspector, he was world-famous 20 years ago for stopping moves that would have given legal cover to the Anglo-American war on Iraq. Perhaps our long-planned interview is exquisitely badly timed, as the Iraq war has faded into history and now there is another conflict in Ukraine, with a clear villain that occupies all our attention. On the other hand, maybe it is useful to have a broader perspective and realise that other great powers, not just Russia, also do bad things.
Blix greets our film team warmly. Our two-day interview was supposed to take place last September but was delayed by illness. He is 94, physically frail but mentally sharp. His flat is elegant and light, full of statues from Africa and rugs from the Middle East. His bookshelf has titles with names like ‘Arsenals of Folly’, ‘Nuclear Verification Yearbook’ and ‘Iraq – the Cost of War’. His study door holds his UN monitoring mission nameplate: ‘Dr Hans Blix, Executive Chairman’. There is a cartoon on the wall: Blix holding a candle of hope.
Born in 1928, Hans Blix grew up in a well-off middle-class family and left school the year the war ended. He wanted to build up the world and make this peace enduring.
“We saw the tremendous disaster of war in Europe, the destruction and opening of the concentration camps, and like many young men I was idealistic and thought: ‘What do I want to do with my life? If I can in any way contribute to no further wars, that will be a rewarding job.’
“I thought about starting a travel agency to get people to meet each other. Now and then I thought of becoming a diplomat, but a friend of the family who was very influential in my life said, ‘Do you want to be one of these chaps who lunches all your life?’ I said ‘No, I am far too serious for that.’ ‘But what about international law?’ ‘Yes’, I thought. If you want peace in a society, you must have more law. International law was not very well developed.”
Blix studied international law at Uppsala, doing his PhD at Cambridge University, and then worked as a civil servant in the Swedish foreign service until he was recruited into the Swedish UN delegation in 1961. For 20 years he served in various UN and Swedish foreign ministry roles, culminating in the job of Foreign Minister. In 1980, he headed off a referendum to abolish nuclear power in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident.
With this on his CV, he was appointed Secretary General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and was at Chernobyl shortly after the accident in 1986. His ‘nuclear diplomacy’, persuading the Soviets to be more open, made him an obvious choice to handle Saddam Hussein.
Hussein was the great Western bogeyman of the 1990s. His Iraq, awash with oil wealth, was secular, had good hospitals, roads and education, but there were also ruthless killings of opponents, and an insane cult of personality. He also used poison gas against the Kurds in the north of Iraq. For the West, though, he really crossed the line in 1990 when he invaded oil-rich Kuwait. The US assembled a large coalition of forces in the Persian Gulf and defeated him in no time. Hussein was allowed to remain in power, but the world community sought to neutralise the threat of his alleged ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMD) – chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. None had been used against the coalition, but he was suspected of developing them for future use.
Two groups of United Nations (UN) inspectors were formed to contain Hussein. One, UNSCOM (United Nations Special Commission), was led by another Swedish diplomat, Rolf Ekéus. UNSCOM investigated chemical and biological programmes. Blix’s IAEA was responsible for looking into Hussein’s alleged nuclear programme. Both were UN bodies, but there was a difference in philosophy. UNSCOM’s inspectors mainly came from the western nuclear powers, had intelligence connections, and were capable but aggressive. Blix’s IAEA inspectors were more genteel, dominated by staff from smaller states, and relied on persuasion to gain insights from Iraqi nuclear scientists.
“We [the IAEA] tracked the nuclear programme, but rather differently. An Italian oversaw our action team. He met these Iraqis who had taken part in the nuclear programme and set up hearings with them, almost like seminars. They did not feel humiliated and so talked a lot,” says Blix.
In his own memoirs, Ekéus says that his team discovered documents that showed that Hussein had a nuclear programme, which Blix’s IAEA had completely missed.
Ekéus’s people did this by strong-arming their way into a top-secret installation and getting hold of troves of documents that described Hussein’s enrichment efforts. The UNSCOM plane thwarted an Iraqi attempt to block the runway and Hussein’s nuclear programme was exposed to the world. This was a few months after the Gulf War. It was more James Bond than the ‘academic seminar’ style preferred by the IAEA.
The Blix version is that the IAEA, using their ‘softer’ methods, made equally good progress. More importantly, the gung-ho methods of UNSCOM led to a breach between Hussein and inspectors in 1998. UNSCOM and the IAEA (guilty by association) had to leave. In the years that followed, fears around the world that Hussein had reconstituted his WMD programme grew. At the time it was thought Hussein was practising ‘deterrence by doubt’ against his Iranian adversary.
However, one recent paper by researchers at George Mason University – who listened to secret tapes (now stored in US research facilities) that Hussein made of his meetings while in power – claims Hussein never talked about reconstituting WMDs but was obsessed by his personal security and regime survival. Unfortunately, methods of deception he used to stay alive were misread as techniques to shift his hidden WMDs around. He thought the intelligence-connected UNSCOM people were scouting out secrets of his hideaways that could then be used to assassinate him.
The modern history of Iraq is littered with coups, with and without Western help. In fact, in the middle of the inspection period (1996), a militant opposition group consisting of rebel officers, the INA, plotted a coup with CIA support, but was found out. Thirty Iraqi army officers were executed. Political scientist Gregory Koblentz writes in the Journal of Strategic Studies: “Analysts and policy makers fell victim to mirror imaging because they tended to focus on what was most important to us – the hunt for WMD – and less on what would be most important for a paranoid dictatorship to protect. The idea that Iraq’s relations with UNSCOM were mediated by regime security concerns was bouncing around in the intelligence community in the 1990s, but regime security was seen as a supplement not as an alternative explanation for Iraqi behaviour.”
Blix bristles at the memory of UNSCOM’s intelligence connections, which proved so fatal to Hussein’s faith in the organisation. Blix’s IAEA had no such intelligence links and was seen as less of a threat.
“UNSCOM was a scandal. Ekéus was at the head of it. We have never been close friends, though we have cooperated on various things because we are both in favour of disarmament. Ekéus was presiding over an organisation that, from the outset, had an American as deputy chairman. You can read it in Richard Clarke, who was in the White House at the time. He describes one of the early UNSCOM inspections of the Ministry of Agriculture which had been planned by the CIA. A UN inspection planned by the CIA!” He shakes his head at this incredible abuse of the neutral UN’s good name.
Blix writes in his own book about the affair, ‘Disarming Iraq’, that Hussein might well have come to doubt prospects for an exit ramp out of the draconian import sanctions the UN had imposed after 1991, despite the ongoing inspections regime. This was because the Americans wanted regime change regardless, and if sanctions were going to stay anyway, you might as well get rid of inspectors and their intrusive ways. Iraq had nothing to lose. There was perhaps an overestimation of American cleverness. They had to know he had no WMDs, so their inspections had to be about something else.
‘If you want peace in a society, you must have more law.’
Three years after UN inspectors left Iraq, on 11 September 2001, the Twin Towers were attacked and history changed forever. The US invaded Afghanistan shortly after. In a matter of weeks, attention turned to Iraq. There were widespread fears in the Western intelligence and political community that Hussein had reconstituted his WMD programme, and he was ready to give these weapons to Islamic terrorists (although as a secular dictator, Hussein was a sworn opponent of Islamism) or use them himself.
As the US assembled forces in Saudi Arabia for a possible invasion of neighbouring Iraq, in the autumn of 2002, intelligence claims about Iraq’s alleged WMD multiplied and were circulated in the UK and US media without much critical analysis.
It is a thankless job to discover which politicians and intelligence officials were acting in good faith, and who was just using WMD as a pretext. Yet a few intelligence failures can be highlighted. In his State of the Union speech of 26 January 2003, President Bush spoke about information from British intelligence that Hussein had acquired supplies of ‘yellowcake uranium’ from Africa. The IAEA got hold of the document and quickly showed it to be a forgery. The African minister from the state of Niger whose signature was at the bottom of the approval letter to the Iraqis was not even in office on the date on the letter. Blix says: “Yellowcake must be handled, and above all it has to be enriched, and the Iraqis were in no position to do that. We had already reported that Hussein currently had no technical means to pursue a nuclear programme. So, I was very sceptical.”
Blix headed the team of inspectors who returned in January 2003, now under a new name, UNMOVIC. “A Sun journalist came up to me and asked, ‘Are your inspectors as capable as UNSCOM’s were?’ I replied, ‘I cannot guarantee you that we have the world’s most capable inspectors, but I can assure you that they are in nobody’s pocket’.”
After visiting Iraq in February 2003, Blix became increasingly convinced that Hussein had not reconstituted his WMD programme.
Washington and London were not keen on that narrative, and emphatically presented their own. The big speech at the UN to convince world opinion in favour of intervention was made by Colin Powell, the respected US Secretary of State. On live TV, Powell said in his deep baritone: “My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources. Solid sources.”
He showed computer-drawn PowerPoint slides of mobile ‘biological weapons lab’ trucks. However, in 2018, US magazine The Intercept revealed the State Department’s intelligence unit had warned their boss (in strong terms) that most claims in his speech were “weak”. Still, Powell had gone ahead.
“I knew it was a puppet show,” says Blix. Powell cited “an eyewitness, an Iraqi engineer” as one of his sources, surprising a Defense Intelligence Agency operative who had interviewed the man and found him to be a fraud. Powell spoke of Iraq’s import of aluminium tubes to a certain specification that could be used to enrich uranium, according to “most experts”. Yet a National Security Estimate summary had told Bush the tubes were more likely intended for conventional weapons, as proved to be the case. After the invasion, the ‘biological weapons lab’ trucks turned out to be carrying hydrogen for refilling weather balloons.
Tony Blair had been a ‘believer’ in the faulty intelligence, but French President Chirac had told Blix: “There is no WMD in Iraq. You know, the intelligence agencies all intoxicate each other.” Chirac formed a ‘peace bloc’ in the Security Council, along with Germany and Russia and welcomed Blix’s report that gave no ground for supposing Hussein had WMDs. The French threatened a veto, so that killed the UN route and the possibility of an internationally sanctioned legal war. The US and UK went ahead anyway, claiming an earlier UN resolution gave them cover. Blix calls the UK’s reasoning “legal mist”.
Iraq was defeated very quickly, but did not stabilise and no WMDs were found. A vicious civil war broke out between the Shia and Sunni Muslims. Massive poverty, chaos and insecurity followed. Thousands of American soldiers died. At least 200,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed.
Add that to the region’s refugee crisis that has caused turmoil in Europe, and the damage to the West’s reputation. Whenever Russia or China do something bad, they can always point to what the West did in Iraq.
Even with a UN blessing, which Blix ensured would not happen, would such a legal war have been the right thing to do?
Now, Blix thinks not. Dictators might be a provocation against the world’s democratic community, but what does militarily removing them lead to? The West’s war on Libya in 2011 was a smaller re-run of Iraq, and that country is still in chaos. The West’s covert operations against Assad’s Syria roiled that country, where most people had stable, if mildly oppressed, lives. For most people, stability and security trump the right to free speech and higher order values. Would it have been better for Iraqi people if Hussein had been allowed to stay in power, under resumed WMD inspections?
“Sadly, I conclude now that biology is the best way to deal with dictators, as it will one day deal with me.”
It is not a coward’s position, but a realist’s. If you conduct a military intervention for ‘humanitarian purposes’, the question must be: does it work? The 20th anniversary of the Iraq war in March 2023 is sure to revive the arguments, and many of the actors are still alive, keen to justify, defend (or even revise) their stances. And Blix, one of the most high-profile players, has made his position clear. The war was a terrible mistake.
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