An Interview with Richard Butler


Transcript of an interview on Australia’s Dateline on SBC.

A few days ago, the US Senate Armed Services Committee voted to repeal a long-standing ban on the development of small nuclear bombs—so called mini nukes. For 10 years the US has abided by an international moratorium on the testing of nuclear weapons—another international convention now likely to go up in smoke. Tonight’s guest, Richard Butler, has had a long involvement in nuclear disarmament issues. Perhaps better known as the former chief weapons inspector in Iraq, most of his career was spent in helping to forge the international anti-nuclear conventions—including a spell as Australia’s Ambassador for Disarmament.

MARK DAVIS: Richard Butler, the US Armed Services Committee has just passed a motion supporting the development of what they’re calling mini nukes. Does this signal the beginning of another arms race? How serious should we take it?

RICHARD BUTLER, FORMER UN CHIEF ARMS INSPECTOR: I can’t overstate the seriousness of it. It is absolutely shocking. If this becomes the policy of the United States Government, if it passes through the Congress and the Bush Administration, which wants it to be the policy, if it implements it, it will involve the United States walking away from, tearing up, solemn obligations that it’s made for 30 years now under international law, and on which the world relies—an obligation to progressively reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world so that they don’t spread to other countries. Instead of honouring that obligation, this would involve tearing it up, walking away from it and, in fact, making new nuclear weapons, going in exactly the opposite direction.

MARK DAVIS: Well, it’s pretty dramatic departure from—I think we all thought that nuclear proliferation was behind it. Who’s pushing for this?

RICHARD BUTLER: The Bush Administration. It’s been clear now for about two years that George W. Bush and the people around him want to have nuclear weapons in the regular battlefield arsenal of the United States armed forces. No more a question of nuclear weapons simply being there to deter what was the Soviet Union, the big scale intercontinental stuff. The question of whether that really worked or not is something we probably haven’t got time to talk about. But for the whole of the period of nuclear weapons since the end of the Second World War, their stated purpose was for deterrence, mutual assured destruction, the outcome of which was supposed to be that therefore they would never be used. They would just deter each other. Now, the Bush Administration wants to have nuclear weapons in the regular battlefield arsenal of its armed forces in order to use them in the same way that they’d use a conventional artillery piece, a conventional missile, an ordinary cannon. That’s what they want to do and they’re the ones pushing for it.

MARK DAVIS: Well, they have an argument for that, of course, is that this now has a strategic use with limited fallout, for use against terrorist groups or rogue states where otherwise a lot of troops would be lost in taking that position. There is a certain logic…

RICHARD BUTLER: There’s none. I’m sorry to interrupt you, but it’s just profound nonsense. Look, even Colin Powell, who’s now Secretary of State, when he was in charge of the United States armed forces wrote in his main book about his experiences as a military commander that when he was in charge in Europe, he dreaded, he dreaded that the order would come from Washington to use nuclear weapons on the battlefield, tactical rather than strategic nuclear weapons. He said there in his book—and everyone knows this, Mark—they are useless and dangerous. All they do is escalate. There is nothing that you can’t achieve with today’s high precision conventional weapons that would require you to go, to take that step, to cross what is called the nuclear threshold and use nuclear weapons. If you cross that threshold, you enter into weapons of mass destruction, you transform the battlefield into a place where the other side can do the same and, look, the fundamental irony of the situation we’re dealing with here is that we have just witnessed the United States go to Iraq to remove Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, and it is now itself proposing to acquire new weapons of mass destruction. It makes no sense in logic, in politics, in proliferation terms and it makes no sense on the battlefield. There is nothing that needs to be achieved on the battlefield today that can’t be achieved with conventional non-nuclear, non-mass destruction weapons.

MARK DAVIS: Well, at the moment, it’s passed a committee stage which is significant in itself, but from your discussions with US officials and your contacts in the States, how far up the food chain is this likely to progress? Are we being overly dramatic in even talking about it now?

RICHARD BUTLER: No, I find it pretty astonishing that people haven’t been talking about it already, that’s why I welcome being with you here tonight and congratulate you for doing it. Because you see, Mark, we are witnessing a profound change in the way in which the world has been run since the Second World War. A cornerstone of that world has been the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a bit of a mouthful, but that’s the treaty that states—that those who have nuclear weapons will progressively get rid of them and those who do not have them, will never get them. So that we’ll come one day to a point where no-one will have nuclear weapons. The United States and the other four official nuclear weapons powers, the five of them, are obligated under that treaty to progressively reduce. Now, if the United States goes ahead and does what is being planned, and walks away from that obligation and, in fact, starts to make new nuclear weapons, I promise you, Mark, it will be the end of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty that we extended a few years ago to be indefinite in the life of humankind—after 30 years of operation, it was extended in 1995 to be indefinite—and the elemental bargain there is that those who don’t have them won’t get them, and those who do have them will get rid of them. And if the United States does this, people will walk away from that treaty, we’ll see—you saw what India and Pakistan did, we know what Israel has done, we know what Iran is looking for, North Korea, it will spread, because you cannot say to another country “It’s OK for me to have nuclear weapons because my security is so important…”

MARK DAVIS: But that’s the point, isn’t it?

RICHARD BUTLER: “..but you can’t.”

MARK DAVIS: That’s exactly what America is doing now. What does it do for the authority of the American voice to talk to North Korea, to talk to Iran about nuclear weapons?

RICHARD BUTLER: It trashes it. It trashes it. This administration in Washington is honestly asking other human beings to believe that American security is so precious, that it can have in its possession whatever weapons of mass destruction it might want, but others can’t. You know, I heard that argument for years. I’ve worked on this subject for over a quarter of a century. I heard it for years, in particular in India. I’ve written a book about it. And the Indians were quite compelling, saying “We can’t accept that somehow American security is more important than ours. We’ve got China on our border with nuclear weapons, they’ve attacked us several times. We can’t accept the basic inequity that is involved in that position.” The United States is about to bring that inequity to a height and it will have nothing to say, nothing that it can credibly say to any other country—“You may not have these weapons”—or indeed to a terrorist group, if it itself walks away from what it has solemnly promised under international law. I welcome your calling attention to this. People must debate this. This is a very serious move.

MARK DAVIS: Under the various treaties, nuclear non-proliferation and the test ban treaties, what are the consequences for a country that either walks away from or breaks the terms of that treaty?

RICHARD BUTLER: What is supposed to be the consequence is that the International Atomic Energy Agency will report to the Security Council that a country—in this case North Korea recently did it—has walked away from its obligation and asked the Security Council, who has the political and military muscle, allegedly, to deal with it, to go to that country and say “You’re breaking the law, this has to stop or else.” Now…

MARK DAVIS: So is that going to happen to America?

RICHARD BUTLER: It’s not going to happen at all! It won’t happen because the way in which the Security Council was trashed on trying to get it support for the invasion of Iraq, this wasn’t obtained, and under international law that invasion therefore is outside the law, some would say plainly illegal. But in very practical terms I ask you, what capacity has the United States now to go to the Security Council and say “Let’s all collectively deal with this threat to security, the country X is about to acquire nuclear weapons.” It’s got no capacity, because of its own double standard on nuclear weapons and because of the way in which the Security Council was abused on the way into Iraq. The Security Council, in this sense, is lying somewhat in ruins, at precisely the time that we need it.

MARK DAVIS: Well, I guess you’d have to say clearly the Americans don’t care what the consequences of a treaty…

RICHARD BUTLER: You’re dead right.

MARK DAVIS: But what do you do now?

RICHARD BUTLER: Well, I’ve talked to senior members of the Bush Administration and if the viewing public are asking “Well, why are they behaving this way?” Well, one can say they’re just plainly selfish or this is the consequence of September 11 and so on. Not really. It’s this—this administration has a view of the special character of the United States, the singular and exclusive character that is new. I’ve talked to them about it and they make this plain. They say “We are the sole super power, we’re therefore the exceptional country, we’re outside of international law. Others have to obey the law and obey the rules, but we don’t.” I mean, I’m not making that up. If they were sitting here tonight, Mark, the people I’ve talked with would readily agree. They’d say “Yeah, that’s right, that’s who we are. We are the exceptional country and we don’t have to obey the law because we’re different.” Now, that’s where this is proceeding from. And I ask you to recognise what happens when the most powerful country, the same as the most powerful people within a domestic society, consider themselves to be above the law. What happens? Citizens, or countries, decide that the law itself is no good and that’s what will happen in the nuclear area.

MARK DAVIS: Well, while I have you here I’ll get you to put your Iraq hat on for a moment. Are you surprised that the Americans haven’t found any weapons of mass destruction so far?

RICHARD BUTLER: No, I’m not, Mark. There’s no doubt that unaccounted for weapons existed when Saddam threw me and my team out in 1998 and, indeed, when Hans Blix, my successor, made his last reports. But I think what we are seeing now is the very strong possibility that towards the end, just before the war began, Iraq either began to destroy those weapons or moved them out possibly to Syria. Destroyed them in the way that it started, you’ll remember, to destroy the al-Samoud missile, in the belief that the weapons wouldn’t be of any further use to them and it would be better for their case if they could say—if no weapons were able to be discovered.

MARK DAVIS: I mean, this is the incredible point, I suppose. We’ve just invaded a country, we’ve killed thousands of people and, despicable as Saddam Hussein may have been, he was probably telling the truth.

RICHARD BUTLER: We need to know that, that’s what I’m saying. It could well be that at that point, immediately prior to the war when they lodged their 12,000 page document, that we may discover they were telling the truth in the sense that at that time they did destroy those extant weapons. We need to know what the facts are to know whether the weapons of mass destruction justification for the invasion was real or not. It’s very, very important. We have four people—the US has four key people in custody now—General Saddi, General Rashid, Tariq Aziz and Dr Germ, Rihab Taha. They know exactly what the facts are. We need to know what they’re saying. We need to know on what basis they’re being interrogated. We need the truth about those weapons, Iraq’s programs, did they give them to terrorists, for example, as has sometimes been claimed. We need the truth behind an invasion and occupation by the United States, and its friends, of Iraq.

Richard Butler, we’ll have to leave it there but thanks for joining Dateline.