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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The '91 Gulf War's Versailles Peace




In December 1998, the United States conducted military attacks against Iraq after the UN Special Commission, or UNSCOM, reported, in essence, that it could not achieve its mandated disarmament and monitoring tasks with the limited access and cooperation Iraq allowed. A year later, in December 1999, the United States voted in the UN Security Council to eliminate UNSCOM and replace it with another organization more acceptable to Iraq and its sympathizers on the council. What happened?


Certainly, Iraq has not improved its behavior. It continues to defy the Security Council, stating it will consider admitting weapons inspectors only if the United Nations lifts sanctions and the United States ceases its enforcement of the no-fly zones over Iraq. Moreover, evidence accumulates that Iraq is continuing its programs for weapons of mass destruction.


On reflection, it is clear that the attempt by the Security Council to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction was doomed from the start. In fact, this failure repeats the same fatal mismatch between disarmament goals and disarmament mechanism that frustrated efforts to disarm Germany after World War I, under the Treaty of Versailles.


The cease-fire resolution passed by the Security Council to end the Persian Gulf War in 1991 included the goal of a complete accounting and elimination of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and all associated production capabilities. A second resolution required intrusive monitoring to ensure that Iraq did not restart its weapons programs. UNSCOM was created to implement these coercive tasks and was given, on paper, extraordinary rights of access. Until Iraq demonstrated complete compliance, the embargo was to continue. Fundamental flaws can be seen in the dynamics of this tripartite arrangement among Iraq, UNSCOM and the Security Council.


First, the goal was forced disarmament, not arms control, the latter being an agreement parties enter into because they judge it in their mutual interest. But Iraq sees its weapons of mass destruction as vital to its national security. Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and other senior members of the Iraqi government described the key role of chemical weapons and long-range missiles in saving Iraq during its war with Iran. They also point to their deterrent value in the gulf war; Aziz regularly said that U.S. forces did not go to Baghdad, and Iraq was not occupied. From the Iraqi perspective, possession of chemical and biological weapons contributed to this outcome. Aziz has also argued that because Iraq was not occupied, there were limits to what UNSCOM could do. He has been proven correct.


A second basic problem was that Iraq, which has had consistent priorities, confronted a group, the Security Council, which has shifting interests and priorities. Iraq's goals have been steadfast since 1991. But the consensus in the Security Council, while strong in 1991, has progressively weakened as other issues came up. There is also growing concern over the consequences of sanctions on Iraq's civilian population. Ironically, as UNSCOM achieved growing, but still partial success, the willingness of the Security Council to enforce its resolutions and support UNSCOM attenuated. Ultimately, it became clear that the Security Council could not agree on a mix of carrots or sticks that would coerce or persuade Iraq to comply. Yet, it is also apparent that the Security Council cannot acknowledge its failure. One point on which consensus exists is the desire to avoid further weakening the council's authority by a blatant failure on Iraq. This motivated the fractious effort to write a new resolution with sufficient elasticity to shroud widely disparate objectives.


On one side, Russia, France and China cited UNSCOM as the problem. They attacked UNSCOM's objectivity; in particular, saying that former Chairman Richard Butler was a pawn of Washington. Therefore, all UNSCOM's technical judgments about Iraqi noncompliance are suspect. They go so far as to accuse UNSCOM of fabricating evidence. At the same time, some of these same council members have aided Iraq in thwarting UNSCOM.


Other council members, including the United States, shifted focus from defending UNSCOM to halting or slowing the disintegration of sanctions that permit Iraq to export oil as long as revenues are used for humanitarian purchases.


Britain proposed a resolution that would preserve disarmament hurdles before sanctions could be lifted, but replacing UNSCOM with a new disarmament organization more like the United Nations f emphasizing geographic diversity of staff, transparency of operations and cultural sensitivity. The council approved this resolution, although Russia, France, China and Malaysia abstained.


Iraq, quite predictably, refuses to acknowledge this new resolution or accept the new organization. It sees no benefit in even pretending to cooperate as there are neither threats of ample magnitude nor evident rewards. So, while no member of the Security Council believes Iraq complies with the disarmament resolution, that body can do nothing about it.


Meanwhile, other elements of the Iraqi problem take precedence, notably the export of oil, in which all permanent council members have an immediate interest.


We have been here before. After World War I, the Allied powers dictated strict disarmament and monitoring obligations to Germany in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. An international organization called the Inter-Allied Control Commission was created to implement those provisions. Inspectors were sent to Germany to verify compliance with weapons, manufacturing and manpower limitations. They endeavored to obtain accurate declarations from Germany of postwar inventories and supervise required destruction activities.


The German military and, in particular, the elite officer corps, dealt with the Control Commission. The inspectors' efforts were frustrated through deception and concealment systems, to preserve prohibited weapons and production. The Germans conducted weapons development abroad and illegally sustained a trained officer and troop base to rapidly expand its army once Allied attention waned.


The German government argued that the inspectors were too demanding and acted as spies. They pleaded that the requirements to demobilize contributed to unemployment and caused the suffering of innocent civilians. They argued that the destruction of many weapons factories was unnecessarily severe. The German army created "army peace commissions," nominally instructed to help the work of the Control Commission, but, in fact, set up to provide surveillance of the inspectors and warn of upcoming inspections. UNSCOM experienced all the above.


As Germany resisted disarmament inspections, disputes among the Allies grew over German compliance and the need for enforcement.


Disputes continued among the Allies, with France assuming the more forceful position. Paris argued that enforcement was necessary and even sought to occupy key cities unilaterally. Britain was more anxious for a political solution, to be free of the problem so it could focus on other issues.


Thus, Germany successfully divided the Allies. The senior British member of the Control Commission, Brigadier General John Morgan, wrote that the German officer corps wore the commission down "by a policy of continuous evasion of our demands until British ministers ? would turn a deaf ear to all our reports, convinced that either Germany was disarmed or, if she was not, never could be."


Ultimately, with the accession of Germany to the League of Nations, the Allies agreed to withdraw the Control Commission at the end of 1926, its work only partially complete. The fig leaf at that time was the argument that with Germany now in the League of Nations, it was only appropriate that any monitoring be accomplished under League auspices and as part of the overall goal of general disarmament. So the record of UNSCOM, Iraq and the Security Council is not unprecedented. The inability of an international organization to conduct coercive disarmament is demonstrated again. The long-term consequences f and their full cost f remain to be seen.


Charles Duelfer, who served in the U.S. State Department, was deputy chairman of UNSCOM from 1993 until March 2000. He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.