Bush Administration Obliged to Seek U.N. Security Council Backing for Iraq War, Says Former Chief Weapons Inspector Richard Butler

January 23, 2003

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Richard Butler, who headed the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), the weapons inspection agency in Iraq until 1998, says that Iraq has clearly violated U.N. resolutions barring its possession of weapons of mass destruction. But the Australian diplomat, who is the Council on Foreign Relations Diplomat-in-Residence, says that the United States has an obligation to get Security Council backing for armed action. Otherwise, he says, Washington will be acting illegally.

It is crucial, Butler says, for the administration “to make very clear that it is concerned to preserve the authority of the United Nations in maintaining international peace and security.” He adds that it is “dispiriting” that European countries are demanding the United States provide proof of Iraq’s defiance; the burden of proof, he says, is on Iraq.

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Butler was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on January 21, 2003.

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Q. Ambassador Butler, the Bush administration is pushing hard, it seems, for what could be a unilateral use of force to disarm Iraq. Opposition is arising within the Western alliance and within the Security Council. What’s your view on this?

A. My view on this is to ask a fundamental question: Why now? The Bush administration has known for a long time that Iraq is not in compliance with United Nations resolutions against developing weapons of mass destruction. … They say they are concerned about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and indeed that’s a serious concern. Yet the question of why they have decided to do it now is one that still demands attention and is the reason why many people around the world are questioning the robustness of the United States at this time in pursuing Iraq.

Q. I thought the answer was the calendar and the weather: the United States is deploying its military forces in the region and wants to use them before summer sets in.

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A. I’m asking a much deeper question than that. If weapons of mass destruction are the problem, and indeed, I agree they are, why haven’t they pursued this earlier? Why haven’t they pursued this elsewhere? The question of why now seems to me to demand a wider answer. Maybe it has to do with September 11, or maybe it has to do with the United States’ interest in what’s happening politically in Saudi Arabia, or in their interest in changing the world oil market. There are a number of possible reasons why it is being pursued now, but the simple reason that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, while indeed it does, is not playing well around the world because … people perceive that this has been the case and they need another reason for the United States pressure just at this time.

Q. So what would your advice be to the administration and to the other members of the Security Council?

A. The administration has got to make very clear that it is concerned to preserve the authority of the United Nations in maintaining international peace and security. [Its actions will answer] the burning question of our time at the end of the Cold War, [which is]: in a world of only one superpower, how will that nation use its power? Will it be to pursue its own interests, or will it continue to comply with the general standards that apply to all other countries? That’s the whole meaning of the Iraq case.

Q. I take it that you are concerned that this administration is pursuing American unilateral interests at the expense of a broader world coalition.

A. What I am saying: Iraq clearly is in violation of international law. Why has it not been addressed, for example, by arresting Saddam Hussein and putting him on trial for crimes against humanity? … Iraq is a state which has for a decade now been obliged under international law to behave in a certain way, to allow its weapons of mass destruction to be taken away, in particular. Now, that is a very serious issue. If Iraq is able to reject the decisions of the Security Council and able to break its treaty obligations such as the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, that will be very bad in terms of the world’s reliance on such bodies, such treaties, and on the authority of the decisions of the Security Council.

Q. Why can’t the United States get more support for its position in the Security Council?

A. Because people are not clear that the United States is doing this for reasons of principle. They think it is doing it for reasons of national interest. … Its choices are twofold. It can continue to support the system of international law and cooperation, or it can decide to go it alone. And when the president of the United States says to the United Nations, “You will fix this problem, or we will fix it,” what he is holding out is the prospect that … the one superpower in the end will do whatever it pleases, whether or not that is consistent with international law. And in this context, one should bear in mind that, were there to be a unilateral attack on Iraq by the United States, that actually would be contrary to international law.

Q. When you were head of UNSCOM, and in your subsequent book, you complained that major powers like France or Russia would not support what should be done to disarm Iraq for economic or political reasons of their own. Is that still the case?

A. Oh, I think Russia and France have their own agenda, as does China and, for that matter, the United Kingdom, although the latter seems to think its agenda requires it at all times to agree with the United States. The point I’m making is this: There is a fabric of international law here and Iraq is in violation of it. The remedy that is required can take various forms, but I would insist that it should be itself under international law. If the remedy that is taken is outside the law, unilateral action, how then is that different from what Iraq did when it invaded Kuwait? When Iraq invaded Kuwait, it broke a principle of the charter of the United Nations which said no one should invade anyone. If the United States invades Iraq in two or three weeks from now, why is that different from what Iraq did when it invaded Kuwait?

Q. Does not Security Council Resolution 1441 state that Iraq could face “serious consequences” if it is found in “material breach” of the resolution? Doesn’t the “serious consequences” line authorize the use of force?

A. No, it doesn’t. What it says is what it says, namely that Iraq should be aware that, if it continues to violate the law, there will be “serious consequences.”

Q. So for the United States to interpret “serious consequences” as giving it justification legally for military action, you think is out of bounds?

A. The United States could interpret it that way, and it would be within its right to do so. But if it decides to then take action consistent with that interpretation, without the approval of the Security Council, it is actually behaving illegally.

Q. How do you think Hans Blix and his team has done so far?

A. They have done their job tolerably well. But what’s more important is that Iraq has not. Iraq has given them superficial cooperation, as is evident in Iraq’s weapons declaration, which is basically very deeply flawed, and in their refusal to offer positive cooperation to the inspectors when it is clear that the state that continues to be in breach of international law is actually Iraq.

Q. So your advice to the United States is to go to the Security Council and try to get a resolution passed?

A. The United States will follow its best interest if it tries to pursue it through the Security Council, and the question of what it will do if the Security Council then says no is something that we’ll face in the future. But I don’t believe the Security Council will say no to enforcement action against Iraq if it were obliged to accept a clear-cut case that it remained in violation of the Security Council.

Q. Is it a case where other nations do not understand what Iraq has violated? There is all this talk about a “smoking gun” not being found. That sort of suggests the United States has to find a nuclear bomb somewhere. But the criticism is that Iraq is not helping identify the weapons it has destroyed, or what it has done with its systems? Is that correct?

A. Yes. But here I come down on the side of the administration when it says that the onus of proof is not on us, but on Iraq. I find it really a bit dispiriting that some European countries are saying that we can’t possibly take action against Iraq unless you, the United States, prove the case. That’s quite wrong. The only country that needs to prove its case is actually Iraq.

Q. On the other hand, if the United States is the only country that understands that, you are saying that it would nevertheless be wrong for the United States to take the initiative and launch an attack with perhaps Britain alongside.

A. Actually, the United States is not the only country that understands that. I think they all understand that. But it is a question of what people want to do about it. The United States seems to be quite keen to do something about Saddam now. Other states like France and Russia are choosing to seek whatever means they can to avoid war waged by the United States. It has nothing to do with the intrinsic merit of the case against Iraq, which is utterly proven. It has to do with the political judgment of what unilateral action by the United States would mean, what it would lead to.

Q. So summing up, the United States obviously has a case, but it has to do a better job in your opinion of persuading others to take action?

A. Absolutely. The United States has a perfectly good case. But it is not doing well in persuading other members of the Security Council that the case merits supporting.

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