The Greatest Threat

In the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, the United Nations Security Council approved a series of resolutions governing the cease-fire between Iraq and the Coalition that had ejected its forces from Kuwait. The most significant of these was Resolution 687, which called for the elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. In the years leading up to the Gulf War, the regime of Saddam Hussein had engaged in an ambitious program of weapons development. Hussein saw possession of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons as the best guarantee of the stability of his rule, and as a sure means of winning prestige and influence in the Middle East.

Author Richard Butler served as the last head of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) charged with supervising Iraq’s compliance with these resolutions. An experienced Australian diplomat, with proven expertise on questions of disarmament, Butler attempted to faithfully execute his charge. Unfortunately, by 1997, the year that he took over UNSCOM, support for the policy of eradicating Hussein’s weapons program was rapidly fading at the United Nations. Three members of the Security Council, Russia, China and France, had self-interested reasons to ease the containment of Iraq. Kofi Annan, the United Nations’ Secretary General, also wanted to avoid trouble by cutting a deal with Hussein. This left Butler in an increasingly untenable position, as the Iraqis aggressively and blatantly defied the law. Late in 1998, the arms inspection process collapsed, and the Americans and British launched an indecisive air campaign that failed to destroy Iraq’s capacity to make new weapons of mass destruction.

Butler’s book is a searing and sobering indictment of the United Nations’ unwillingness to challenge and control an obvious evil.