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Week after week Bush and his people have been getting pounded by newly emboldened Democrats and liberal pundits for having exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and his still-elusive weapons of mass destruction. One day CIA director George Tenet, is hung out to dry; the next it’s the turn of Paul Wolfowitz’s platoon of mad Straussians. The other side of the Atlantic, the same sort of thing has been happening to Tony Blair.
They deserve the pounding, but if we’re to be fair there’s an even more deserving target, a man of impeccable liberal credentials, well respected in the sort of confabs attended by New Labor and espousers of the Third Way. I give you Rolf Ekeus, former Swedish ambassador to the United States and, before that, the executive chairman of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) on Iraq from 1991 to 1997. These days he’s chairman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a noted dovecote of the olive branch set.
In the wake of the first Iraq war it was UNSCOM chief Ekeus, exuding disinterested integrity as only a Swede can, who insisted that Saddam Hussein was surely pressing forward with the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. It was Ekeus who played a pivotal role in justifying the continued imposition of sanctions, on the grounds that these sanctions were essential as a means of applying pressure to the tyrant in Baghdad.
In 1996 Ramsey Clark, former US Attorney General, and a leading critic of the indiscriminate cruelty of these sanctions, wrote an open letter to Ekeus beginning thus: “Dear Mr. Ekeus, How many children are you willing to let die while you search for ‘items’ you ‘are convinced still exist in’ Iraq? Every two months for the past half year, and on earlier occasions, you or your office have made some statement several weeks before the Security Council considers sanctions against Iraq which you know will be used to cause their continuation This cruel and endless hoax of new disclosures every two months must stop. The direct consequence of your statements which are used to justify continuation of the sanctions against Iraq is the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent and helpless infants, children and elderly and chronically ill human beings.”
Despite many such furious denunciations, till the day he handed over his job as UNSCOM chief to the more obviously suspect and disheveled Australian, Richard Butler, Ekeus continued in the manner stigmatized by Clark and others. US ambassador to the UN Madeline Albright notoriously said to Lesley Stahl of CBS, of the lethal sanctions which killed over half a million Iraqi children, “we think the price is worth it”, but Ekeus was the one who furnished the UN’s diplomatic cover for that repulsive calculus.
It’s fortunate for Ekeus’s reputation among the genteel liberal crowd that public awareness of what he really knew about Saddam’s chemical, biological and nuclear weapons is still slight. In fact Ekeus was perfectly well aware from the mid-l990s on that Saddam Ussein had no such weapons of mass destruction. They had all been destroyed years earlier, after the first Gulf war.
Ekeus learned this on the night of August 22, l995, in Amman, from the lips of General Hussein Kamel, who had just defected from Iraq, along with some of his senior military aides. Kamel was Saddam’s son-in-law and had been in overall charge of all programs for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and delivery systems.
That night, in three hours of detailed questioning from Ekeus and two technical experts, Kamel was categorical. The UN inspection teams had done a good job. When Saddam was finally persuaded that failure to dispose of the relevant weapons systems would have very serious consequences, he issued the order and Kamel carried it out. As he told Ekeus that night, “All weapons, biological, chemical, missile, nuclear, were destroyed.” (The UNSCOM record of the session can ne viewed at http://www.fair.org/press-releases/kamel.pdf). In similar debriefings that August Kamel said the same thing to teams from the CIA and MI6. His military aides provided a wealth of corroborative details. Then, the following year, Kamel was lured back to Iraq and at once executed.
Did Ekeus immediately proclaim victory, and suggest that sanctions could be abated? As we have seen, he did not. In fact he urged that they be intensified. The years rolled by and Iraqi children by the thousand wasted and died. The war party thumped the drum over Saddam’s WMDs, and Kamel’s debriefings stayed under lock and key. Finally, John Barry of
Newsweek unearthed details of those sessions in Amman and in February on this year Newsweek ran his story, though not with the play it deserved. I gather that when Barry confronted Ekeus with details of the suppressed briefing, Ekeus was stricken. Barry’s sensational disclosure was mostly ignored.
And Ekeus’s rationale for suppressing the disclosures of Kamel and his aides? He claims that the plan was to bluff Saddam and his scientists into further disclosures. Try to figure that out.
For playing the game, the way the US desired it to be played, Ekeus got his rewards: a pleasing welcome in Washington when he arrived there as Swedish ambassador, respectful audiences along the world’s diplomatic circuits. To this day he zealously burnishes his “credibility” with long, tendentious articles arguing that Bush and Blair had it right. He betrays no sign of being troubled by his horrible role. He will never be forced to squirm in hearings by Democratic senators suddenly as brave as lions. He won’t have to wade through raw sewage to enter the main hospital in Baghdad and watch children die or ride in a Humvee and wait for someone to drop a hand grenade off a bridge and blow his head off.
Today he grazes peacefully in the tranquil pastures of the Stockholm Peace Research Institute. But if we’re going to heap recriminations on Bush and Blair and the propagandists who fashioned their lies, don’t forget Ekeus. He played a worse role than most of them, under the blue flag of the UN.
ALEXANDER COCKBURN is the coeditor of The Politics of Anti-Semitism.