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Iraq Special Report
  Reversing Course on Iraq

Thursday, February 26, 1998; Page A14

UNTIL RECENTLY, the Clinton administration firmly believed that Saddam Hussein should have no say in the composition of inspection teams searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Just as firmly, the U.S. government insisted that the inspectors should be independent and should report only, and directly, to the Security Council. Yet in the agreement reached between Kofi Annan and Saddam Hussein, it now emerges, both those stout principles have fallen by the wayside -- while the United Nations has committed to respect Iraq's "national security, sovereignty and dignity." If Saddam Hussein has "reversed course," as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright claimed yesterday, he's not the only one.

Most congressional leaders seem, like the administration, relieved that Mr. Annan's mission has averted an air war, at least for now. This isn't surprising, given the number of innocent Iraqis who would have died in a campaign that would not, by the administration's own assessment, have displaced Saddam Hussein or destroyed his biological and chemical weapons. Lacking a plausible, agreed-upon policy leading up to the latest crisis, in other words, the administration had put itself into a box and so finds itself relieved to get back out without having to make good on its threats.

That relief, however, should not be allowed to distract from the disturbing details that have emerged regarding Mr. Annan's deal. Eight so-called presidential sites, which together include more than 1,000 buildings, are now to be inspected, not by U.N arms chief Ambassador Richard Butler's proven operation, but by a new bureaucracy led by a commissioner who will report to Mr. Annan, or to a political representative appointed by him. This new bureaucracy will form teams that include both technical inspectors and diplomats without comparable expertise. The diplomats' role remains undefined, but they could easily jeopardize the element of surprise that is so essential to the inspectors' job. Secretary Albright has said the administration wants to "test" this agreement. But here's the catch: The agreement may be so constructed that Iraq can faithfully comply with its terms and yet still stymie any legitimate inspection -- in which case it is far from clear what recourse the United States would have.

Mr. Annan's new role is troubling, not because anyone questions his integrity but because he has now invested so much in this agreement; can he be arbiter and prosecutor at once? In a closed meeting, he reportedly referred to Ambassador Butler's inspectors as "cowboys." In an open press conference, Mr. Annan said the inspectors shouldn't "push their weight around and cause tensions." He praised Saddam Hussein's "courage, wisdom, flexibility," calling him a man "I can do business with. . . . I was impressed by his decisiveness."

Perhaps jet lag can explain some of these remarks; perhaps the cowboy remark was misquoted. We hope Mr. Annan, and all Security Council members, will set the record straight. Saddam Hussein promised seven years ago to make a full accounting of his nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. He has never done so but, on the contrary, has repeatedly lied about his arsenal. The U.N. inspectors have not been cowboys but rather extremely courageous experts who have been shot at, held hostage, cheated and deceived as they have tried to do their jobs. Many times they have been forced to watch as Iraqi security forces carted evidence out the back doors of buildings while soldiers detained the inspectors at the front. Saddam Hussein may be decisive; he is also a war criminal who invaded a sovereign nation, set its oil wells on fire and took hundreds of prisoners for whom, to this day, he has yet to provide an accounting. If Saddam Hussein really "wants cooperation, he wants it done," as Mr. Annan said, all he has to do is -- as promised -- turn over his anthrax and his nerve gas.

In the end, though, Kofi Annan is not responsible for the shortcomings in the agreement; he went to Baghdad and did what the United Nations asked. The United States threatened force but seemed not to want to use it. It likened Saddam Hussein to Hitler but wasn't prepared to deal with him as a Hitler must be dealt with. The United States said it would not negotiate, but it sent Mr. Annan to negotiate, and that's exactly what he did.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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