Interview with Richard Butler: Why Saddam Husayn Loves the Bomb
by Daniel Pipes
Richard Butler has been diplomat-in-residence at the Council on Foreign Relations since mid-1999, when he left his position as executive chairman of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), the agency charged with overseeing the destruction of Iraq's arsenal. Born in 1942, Mr. Butler studied at the University of Sydney and Australian National University and joined the Australian Foreign Ministry in 1965. He focused on disarmament issues and served as his country's ambassador for disarmament (1983-88) as well as to Thailand and Cambodia (1989-92) and to the United Nations (1992-97). He was interviewed in his New York office by Daniel Pipes on Dec. 3, 1999.
Did UNSCOM Work?
Middle East Quarterly: Why did Saddam Husayn refuse to cooperate with the United Nations Special Commission?
Richard Butler: His demonstrated fundamental interest has always been to retain a weapons of mass destruction [WMD] capability. That's why from the beginning he refused to accept the obligations imposed on him by the Security Council, and from the beginning, sought to defeat UNSCOM's work. Iraq's arguments about sanctions have always been deployed as a political front-as a political rationale to justify its refusal to cooperate with the arms control regime.
MEQ: Did the declared U.S. policy of trying to replace Saddam affect the ability of your inspectors to do their job?
Butler: No, it didn't affect their practical ability to do the job. That was determined by more objective things such as the quality of the staff we recruited and the degree of access we were given or denied by Iraq. But that particular U.S. policy contributed to a political environment that in the end became hostile to UNSCOM.
MEQ: What impact did the threat of U.S. and allied bombing have on Saddam's cooperation with UNSCOM?
Butler: It had a quite salutary impact from time to time. But in the end Iraq obviously decided to take what it hoped would be a final bombing and expect to survive as a consequence of the changed politics that would then ensue. And its calculation in this regard appears to have been right, at least up to the present time.
MEQ: Overall, was UNSCOM effective?
Butler: UNSCOM was an extraordinary experiment, and in many respects it had outstanding disarmament results.
UNSCOM was an extraordinary experiment, and in many respects it had outstanding disarmament results.
There's no doubt in my mind that its ability derived from the special character of the organization, that it was independent with its own budget, did its own recruitment, free from the UN's so-called principle of equitable geographic distribution for positions. (Actually, that wasn't too hard because a lot of the U.N. member states don't have the expertise that we needed for this sort of work.) I am convinced that the special characteristics of UNSCOM's formation and structure-a high degree of independence, ability to recruit the best people, flexibility of operation-was the source of its strength. If it is replaced by an institution that lacks those characteristics, I have grave doubt that it will be able to do a serious job.
MEQ: Is it a model for future such endeavors or would you say to the contrary that lessons have been learned that suggest one should do it differently?
Butler: Yes, it does offer a model for how that kind of hands-on disarmament should be done in the future.
MEQ: Did UNSCOM represent a model that can be used for control of other rogue states?
Butler: It's an admirable model not for rogue states as such, but for control of similar situations where a state uses subterfuge to acquire and deploy weapons of mass destruction.
MEQ: What lessons can be drawn from UNSCOM's relations with intelligence agencies, especially the CIA and Israeli intelligence?
Butler: UNSCOM had relationships with quite a number of intelligence agencies from member states of the United Nations, not just the American ones. These relationships were entered into because UNSCOM faced a massive wall of deceit from Iraq. They were absolutely legal. Indeed, they're indirectly called for in the resolutions of the Council where all states are asked to give all possible assistance.
Those relationships have been flagrantly misrepresented, unfortunately. I know precisely what I approved of and I know what I did not. The criteria I used at all times was: Would this serve proper disarmament purposes?
MEQ: You paid eight visits to Iraq in your capacity of UNSCOM's chairman. Any anecdotes to tell about your experiences there?
Butler: I'm writing a book about those experiences, and I will be examining the problems of control of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, so the book will have a serious title. But at one stage, I thought as I was sitting across the table from Iraq's deputy prime minister Tariq 'Aziz in Baghdad that if I ever write about my experiences, I'd have to call it "Dictators Don't Laugh." I was repeatedly struck by how unfunny, how humorless, the boys from Baghdad are. Everything for them is deadly serious, with a capital "D."
The Husayn Kamil Affair
MEQ: It appeared at the time that Husayn Kamil's defection from Iraq was genuine. But you have written that it was all staged - except for the macabre final act.1 Do you still hold to this surprising conclusion?
Butler: Your question slightly misrepresents what I wrote. I did not say that I believed it was phony. I simply aired the thesis that it may have been staged-except for the last part. I did that because a clear and persuasive explanation from beginning to end as to what really happened remains elusive. A rational explanation for his defection and the revelation of the "Chicken Farm Documents" has never really been available.
MEQ: You wrote in Talk that because of the illogicalities of the conventional explanation, you're proposing "another take," that "the whole thing was a setup."
Butler: That's exactly what I'm not saying. I noted that there was an alternative explanation. Mind you, I was merely recording that thesis. I don't know which of them is true.
MEQ: The article did not read as though you were agnostic on the issue.
Butler: That was, in fact, my position. Since the article appeared and it spurred a lot of interest, a number of informed people have approached me and convinced me that the likelihood of the second thesis - of Husayn Kamil's defection being bogus - being correct is small. I now accept that. There is a high likelihood that it was a genuine defection. I now see that as the best explanation.
There is a high likelihood that Husayn Kamil's defection was a genuine.
MEQ: Best - but you're still not convinced?
Butler: It still leaves one hanging. Why in the name of God did Husayn Kamil go back to Iraq after having defected and sold out Saddam Husayn? You note the murder of the man, and you say, why on earth did he go back to Iraq? To accept the assurance of Saddam Husayn-on whom you have just totally ratted-that you can come home, as though all is forgiven, must rank as one of the twentieth century's worst personal decisions. Proceeding from that question, I recorded the thesis that, maybe, he was a part of the script in the first instance.
MEQ: But in your article you point specifically to "a dozen very large, shipping containers" as the key.
Butler: Do I? Key to what?
MEQ: To the whole episode being bogus, your thinking the Kamil defection was a setup. . .
Butler: That's really a quite separate issue. Let me go back to the beginning. Husayn Kamil defected and [former head of UNSCOM] Rolf Ekéus was advised to go to this farm outside Baghdad and pick up documents, the so-called Chicken Farm Documents. He did. Subsequent U-2 imagery showed that somewhere between his being informed of it and arriving at the farm, there had previously been other containers there, and then they had been moved. Iraq subsequently denied that this ever occurred even though we have photographs of it.
We've never known what that was all about. Were the Iraqis seeding the pile of documents that they were going to give us so that we would know about a certain quantity of armaments but not all of them, or were they hurriedly removing some of the armaments themselves?
MEQ: You are suggesting that there was an elaborate Iraqi deception strategy, of which Kamil was an important part?
Butler: You must ask yourself whether the man was in on the whole plot. Was it an insider deal with his participation from the beginning? Otherwise, it staggers the imagination that he accepted Saddam's invitation to go back. And one possible explanation was that he didn't think for a moment that he was going to be killed because he was part of the setup anyway.
That said, I now think that the first explanation is the real one, and that Husayn Kamil just made one of the world's worst decisions.
MEQ: Scott Ritter replied to your article, saying he could "strongly refute" the idea that Husayn Kamil was not a real defector,2 and …
Butler: Scott Ritter's criticism and claims, sadly, contain significant errors. His letter to Talk, responding to my article, put forth that he was the main person to pursue this matter; that's wrong. It is just typical of Scott's whole approach at UNSCOM to say to the world, "I was UNSCOM." That's just silly.
Scott Ritter's criticism and claims contain significant errors.
Weapons of Mass Destruction
MEQ: What might Saddam do with weapons of mass destruction? Using them would presumably bring devastating retaliation against Iraq. Do the Iraqis have a strategy, is there a doctrine for their use?
Butler: I don't know but that's a very interesting question. In one conversation I had with Tariq 'Aziz, he identified Iran and Israel as Iraq's "permanent enemies." He seemed to imply that those weapons were necessary to deal with those two enemies. In fact, he specifically said that missiles and chemicals - both of them - had saved Iraq from Iran.
MEQ: He did not mention Kuwait?
Butler: No, he did not. I should add one other use of the weapons. As all politics begin at home, those Iraqi WMD demonstrate Saddam Husayn's domestic power and help him stay in office. Beyond that, if you look at Saddam's statements about the Arab nations' need for a leader, he clearly views his possession of these weapons as a way of demonstrating his credentials to the Arabs as the person who ought to lead them. But as for specific strategies of use, I'm not sure.
MEQ: Why has Saddam Husayn forfeited over $100 billion in oil sales to keep hold of his weapons of mass destruction? Why has he not turned everything over quickly, expeditiously, completely, and then with the skills of his manpower and the money flowing in, rebuilt them?
Butler: Good point. He clearly prefers weapons over relief of sanctions. At any stage he could have handed the weapons over and the United Nations would have had to accept that, close the matter, and lifted sanctions. So his actions have made sanctions remain until the present time.
MEQ: Do you see a logic to that choice?
Butler: Well, the only analysis that stands the test of reason is this: One, weapons to him are paramount, more important than the welfare of his people. Two, he sees weapons as having utility to both remaining in power and posturing to be a leader of the Arab world. And three, what 'Aziz said to me is probably believed by them-that they think they need these sorts of weapons to protect Iraq from the Iranians and Israelis.
MEQ: So even a period of some months or years without the weapons, feeling naked without them, was something that they cannot accept even temporarily?
Butler: Yes, because in his thinking, it would have represented a defeat or humiliation, which might mean he loses power in Iraq.
For Saddam Husayn, going without WMD might mean he loses power in Iraq.
MEQ: Can you estimate within what period of time Iraq will have nuclear weapons?
Butler: That's a very sensitive question that deserves a careful answer lest people become alarmed. I feel very deeply about arms control, and it's not served by hysteria.
Here are the facts as I understand them to be true. One, Iraq knows how to build a nuclear explosive device. Two, it's got the people to do it. Three, it lacks indigenous sources of quality for the necessary fissile material. Were it to use the available sources to create the core required for an explosive device, some time would be needed-maybe a year or two, because those indigenous materials are so poor. It would also require a fair amount of technology, such as rows of centrifuges or some gaseous diffusion equipment, to enrich uranium.
Iraq knows how to build a nuclear explosive device.
There are three barriers to making a nuclear weapon-material, know-how, and people. Those latter two almost become one. Know-how exists very substantially in the minds of people. The materials barrier will, of course, be leapt over were Iraq to require that material externally, either through willing transfer by some other state or illicitly. And it's absolutely critical to take action to safeguard against that. But absent that and with Iraq proceeding on the basis of its own know-how and resources, you're looking at something like a minimum of two years, from say, today.
MEQ: Should we presume that date began a year ago when inspections ended or a year and four months ago?
Butler: Unfortunately, I have no way of knowing. Should we presume it? Personally, I would. The prudent person would assume that when we left in August 1998-that those who decide these things in Baghdad said well, look, you'd better call that group back together and get them back to work.
MEQ: So, the clock is ticking?
Butler: I assume so.
MEQ: And you would not be surprised if in the course of the next year we had an announcement of some sort from Iraq that they have some sort of nuclear weapon?
Butler: I'd be stunned because I don't think they will make such an announcement.
MEQ: Well, they did in the course of the Iraq-Iran war declare that they had a surprise weapon that would devastate Iranians. They didn't mention what it was (in fact, it was the super-gun), but they did boast of it.
Butler: I don't know whether they would do that or not. It'd be pretty stupid of them to do so. What's more interesting is a test explosion.
This is why a nuclear test-ban treaty is so important. In the end, countries like Iraq can't know the answer to the only important question, which is, "Does it work?" unless they test.
MEQ: And a test-ban treaty would prevent them from trying it?
Butler: If it existed (and it does not yet), it would not by itself necessarily prevent testing-there are so many arms control agreements that don't achieve this. They cannot literally prevent something from happening, but they put enormous barriers in the way of it: the commitment of the whole world against such an event and a verification and inspections system that gives advance notice that such an event may be about to happen.
MEQ: Even in the case of Iraq?
Butler: Well, if the test-ban treaty existed, and Iraq were a party to it but was cheating from within as it did on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, I assume that inspectors from a combination of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] and the test-ban treaty organization who went to Iraq would become aware of suspicious activities. And they'd be able to tell the world community, "We've got some concerns here."
The Raid on Osirak
MEQ: In retrospect, what is your opinion of the 1981 Israeli destruction of Iraq's nuclear facility, which prompted the General Assembly at the time to state that it "strongly condemns Israel for its premeditated and unprecedented act of aggression"?3
Butler: That question poses many difficulties, requiring as it does that we consider the lesser of two evils, and so on. Especially for a person who has spent his life in arms control, as I have, I must be concerned about any breaching of international obligations. We now know that Iraq was committing the cardinal sin under multilateral arms control agreements, which is cheating from within: sign on to the agreements but then doing exactly what it promised not to do. That's everyone's worst nightmare. It's worse than staying outside a regime, as India and Pakistan stayed outside the NPT; at least we knew where they were coming from. In the case of Iraq, we do now know that it was cheating from within, but we didn't quite know that in 1981.
MEQ: We didn't?
Butler: Who knew it?
MEQ: It was obvious.
Butler: Obvious to whom?
MEQ: Obvious to anyone who followed the news. It was perfectly self-evident what they were building there, and why. And that's why the Israelis mounted an attack.
Butler: The issue is more technical: what did we know, who knew it, and when. My preference would always be for the facts to become known through the system that is legitimately in place, through the IAEA inspectors and the international community. Then the Security Council could have demanded that Iraq cease and desist. Then if Iraq refused, the Security Council could have organized the bombing of the facility. That's the correct way to proceed.
For a state to take unilateral action of the kind that Israel did-while maybe intelligible in terms of its perceptions of its own security-raises enormous difficulties, and Israel paid a price for a number of years (in terms of the impact of its unilateral act on the peace process). So, it is a difficult question, though I know what I think about it privately.
MEQ: You're saying that you are torn? Your concern about arms proliferation and about legality diametrically clash?
Butler: It's a conflict I find hard to resolve. I utterly lament what Iraq was doing. I would have preferred that the action taken against it had been swift and terrible but through the international system. It would have had fewer deficits imposed on it, including for Israel.
The 1981 Israeli raid on Osirak presents a conflict I find hard to resolve.
MEQ: Did the Israel raid make a difference?
Butler: It did set back Iraq's efforts, yes.
MEQ: You see the Security Council taking that sort of decisive action at present?
Butler: Let me make a little news here and say I fear the possibility that Saddam Husayn will succeed soon in facing down the Security Council. I have a second nightmare: that the Council will be seen to be unreliable when it comes to enforcing international arms control obligations.
I fear that the politics of the Council might prevail over its international responsibilities. For example, China said to the Council a few years ago: Keep your hands off North Korea, even though it is cheating from within, because North Korea's our friend. And so the Council didn't do anything. It was necessary to go outside the Council and build the Korea Energy Development Organization. That defeats the purpose of having a Security Council.
That's why I have proposed that there's one area where the Security Council veto should not be permitted to the permanent members: where it is objectively demonstrable that a country is in breach of an arms control agreement that it has entered into. When a country comes into an agreement and then cheats on it, the international community has a right to expect that in quick time the matter will be considered, the Council would give a warning and a time limit, and if the country doesn't comply-bang.
Policy toward Iraq
MEQ: Has the "oil-for-food" program permitted Saddam to divert resources that otherwise would have gone to buying food instead into buying materials for his weapons of mass destruction?
Butler: I don't know. It would be preposterous for me to simply say, yes, because that would imply a level of knowledge about what they do with their money that I don't have. But the lamentable fact on oil-for-food, is that the Iraqi authorities have never permitted that program to reach the people in the way that it should.
MEQ: Baghdad insists that the sanctions are harming the Iraqi people. Washington replies that Saddam could instantly take the decisions that would end the sanctions; and, anyway, the oil-for-food program would keep everyone adequately nourished and medicated, if only Saddam were not selling the food and medications to raise cash for arms and pleasure palaces. Your thoughts?
Butler: This whole complex of weapons and sanctions and Iraq is one of the wickedest things I've seen in thirty years in international politics: Saddam's preference is for weapons over the welfare of his people, whether expressed in phony declarations to UNSCOM or not allowing the full benefit of oil-for-food to get to his people which the authorities concerned, UNICEF and so on, have recorded.
One of the main outcomes of sanctions has been his ability to put together a black market operation in Iraq for oil and so on, which is enormous. When you ask yourself, how is it that the Iraqi military sector is so well-financed, there's your answer. And I assume that extends to financing the WMD production that they've resumed.
MEQ: What should the outside world do about the Saddam Husayn regime? Extirpate or contain?
Butler: The first objective is to restore an international presence in Iraq to monitor their activities. I don't think there's any doubt about that. As Iraq is refusing to do that, presumably because its main interest is to retain WMD, how do you bring that monitoring about? By threatening them militarily, or by offering a suspension of sanctions?
At this point, I don't know which of those is most likely to succeed. What I do know is that whatever is negotiated will fail unless all permanent members of the Security Council agree to it. So that's what's crucial, even more than any specific approach.
MEQ: You wrote that Russia became Iraq's most aggressive advocate in the Security Council, and made your work untenable. In that light, could you comment on Moscow's recent offer that it would cooperate on Iraq if we gave them free course to pursue the war in Chechnya however it pleases? Does that suggest that someone in Russia is not being paid off by the Iraqis anymore?
Butler: Well, I read about that offer with astonishment. All of this Russian posturing-about the evils that are being done to Saddam Husayn, how he really is disarmed if only we would see it that way, etc.-are revealed as completely arbitrary statements, as well as the negotiable coin that they really were.
1 Talk, September 1999.
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