Jessica T. Mathews is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She co-authored “Coercive Inspections in Iraq: A New Approach” and handled nonproliferation issues in the National Security Council from 1976 to 1978.
A little-known truth about the Iraq war has much to tell us — positive and negative — about the prospects of dealing diplomatically with Syria’s chemical weapons. The inspections carried out by the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were anything but the fool’s mission pooh-poohed by the Bush administration. In fact, they were a striking international success.
The story most Americans remember is that Saddam Hussein turned out not to have nuclear, chemical, biological and missile programs. He had had them, all right, but U.N. inspectors had found and largely dismantled them before the war. From 1991 to 1998, the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) and the IAEA discovered and eliminated most, if not all, of Iraq’s unconventional weapons and production facilities, and they destroyed most of its chemical and biological weapons agents. Iraq’s most secret program — its biological weapons effort — was discovered through painstaking detection. Covert transactions among Iraq and more than 500 companies from 40 countries were uncovered one by one, and a mechanism was put in place to block banned imports. In the lead-up to the war, while national intelligence services were getting the story wrong, U.N. inspectors knew pretty much what was there and where to look for it.
Inspections were not a matter of running around searching for needles in a haystack. They involved conducting lengthy interviews, building relationships with key individuals, assembling a story from person to person, carrying out technical analysis, sifting records and physical visits. Sanctions, procurement investigations and export-import controls were all essential.
A similar success could be carried out and sustained indefinitely in Syria if the operation were to build on the lessons of Iraq.
United political backing is a necessity from the beginning. Although the inspection teams in Iraq, particularly in the early years, were poorly equipped, penetrated by Iraqi spying and blatantly obstructed on the ground, their greatest weakness lay in New York. Hussein played the major powers against each other in the United Nations until political support was so eroded that inspections were forced to halt in 1998. Presumably, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad would seek to do the same. The U.N. Security Council must not again allow the rules of procedure to tilt in favor of the miscreant and against its own agents, and it must recognize that the political accord behind the operation is as important as technology and expertise on the ground. Most of all, that means being clear that this is an effort to corral chemical weapons, not to resolve a civil war.
Stable, two-way communication between the international inspections and many national intelligence agencies also is essential. The arrangements must protect the information provided, prevent misuse by governments and allow feedback at both ends as discoveries are made. In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly in 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed to pictures of “signature items” in satellite photos that he said were chemical weapons decontamination vehicles. Inspectors who had visited the sites insisted the vehicles were water trucks. How much of the 30 million-page archive produced by the inspectors did U.S. analysts study before the war?