JIM LEHRER: The problem that won't go away-- arms inspections in Iraq. We start with a report from Spencer Michels.
SPENCER MICHELS: The last time there was an impasse over weapons inspections in Iraq, 13 months ago, American and British warplanes launched a four-day bombing campaign.
SPOKESMAN: For those in favor of the draft resolution...
SPENCER MICHELS: For the last month, there's been another impasse over inspections, but so far only words have flown at the United Nations Security Council. But the final result has been the same: There have been no U.N. Weapons inspectors in Iraq for more than a year. After months of wrangling over the inspectors' access to alleged weapons sites, the last group was pulled out just before the U.S. and Britain launched Operation Desert Fox. Iraq refused to allow them to return. And U.S. And British warplanes have been bombing Iraq radar sites sporadically ever since, though Iraq claims some attacks have hit civilians.
It was only after the massive defeat of Iraq in the Gulf War in 1991 that U.N. inspections began, the result of a U.N. resolution. The point was to ensure that Iraq neither possessed nor produced nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons or missiles to deliver them. U.N. inspectors from 40 countries were part of the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq, known as UNSCOM. It's been headed by two arms control experts. First by Rolf Ekeus, a Swede, and from 1997 till last year by Richard Butler, an Australian, who was not reappointed.
Those directors and the inspectors on the ground frequently tangled with Iraqi officials over access to suspected weapons sites and information. The Iraqis insist they no longer possess weapons of mass destruction. Therefore, they say, the U.N.-imposed sanctions preventing them from selling oil should be lifted. Iraq has long accused UNSCOM of spying for the west, a charge publicly confirmed last year by one former American inspector, Scott Ritter. He wrote that the CIA used UNSCOM to plant listening devices in Iraq. In the past six months, the major powers on the U.N. Security Council, and diplomats from other nations, such as the Netherlands, have been negotiating over how to revive inspections.
Last month the Security Council voted to create a new organization, the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission, which has the acronym UNMOVIC The Council also ordered U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to pick a new chief inspector. After considering 25 other names, Annan turned to Rolf Ekeus, the first head of UNSCOM. But his choice was immediately rejected by France, Russia, and China on the grounds that Ekeus was tainted by his association with the old commission. The U.S. said it supports the Ekeus nomination.
JAMES RUBIN: In our view, given his background, Ambassador Ekeus is superbly suited to the task of launching UNMOVIC, and performing the disarmament mission.
SPENCER MICHELS: The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Richard Holbrooke, who is the current Security Council president, has declined to predict how long it will take to get a new director for the commission.
JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner takes the story from there.
MARGARET WARNER: For more on this impasse and what's behind it, we get three views: Ambassador Richard Butler headed the U.N.'s last Iraqi weapons inspection team, UNSCOM, from 1997 to 1999; Ambassador Robert Pelletreau was U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs during the first term of the Clinton administration; and Edmund Ghareeb is an Adjunct Professor of Middle East Studies at American University, and the author of several books about Iraq and the Middle East. Ambassador Butler, why do you think we're seeing this impasse over the naming of a new weapons inspection chief?
RICHARD BUTLER: Three permanent members of the security council -- the Russians, the French and the Chinese -- did not vote for this resolution. They didn't have the courage to deliver their veto, and they allowed the resolution to be adopted.
MARGARET WARNER: Now let me interrupt you one second. You're talking about the resolution that created the new successor to UNSCOM.
RICHARD BUTLER: That's right.
MARGARET WARNER: Go ahead.
RICHARD BUTLER: I mean they did not veto it. But nor did they vote for it. And what we're seeing now is action by them to see that it's not implemented.
MARGARET WARNER: And why do you think that is? Why do you think Russia and France and China don't want a new inspector to go there?
RICHARD BUTLER: Well, they have their separate reasons. They've tried to explain them, I think in most cases badly. But the one that disturbs me most of all is the Russian explanation. The Russian ambassador came outside the security council a few days ago and said, we're not going to approve of Kofi Annan's proposal for a new head of this organization, but more importantly, we will not approve of any inspection means or teams or targets of inspection of which Iraq does not approve. And what he was saying is that there's now a new member of the security council: Iraq, for whom they will speak and whose veto they will deliver. Now their reasons for that are theirs but they're very deeply disturbing.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you explain it, Ambassador Pelletreau? First of all, do you agree with Ambassador Butler that essentially Iraq is indirectly exercising a veto here?
ROBERT PELLETREAU: Iraq can't be allowed to exercise a veto, but Russia, as a permanent member of the security council has the right to express its opinion. What we're seeing here is a continuation of the disagreements that have prevented the passage of a resolution all during the past year up until December. Then three countries abstained, and now we're seeing that same disagreement reemerge about the nomination of the chief inspector.
MARGARET WARNER: Now there are many analysts and articles that have been written over these last few months that say really that Russia and France in particular are pursuing commercial interests or looking forward to the day perhaps when sanctions are lifted and there are lucrative oil and gas contracts. How much truth is there to that, do you think?
ROBERT PELLETREAU: Well, there's some truth to that. We shouldn't bunch Russia and France together. Actually, their positions are somewhat different and France always insisted that Iraq fulfill its obligations to the security council. But both Russia and France have substantial debts outstanding from Iraq that they'd like to see payments start on, and they have substantial either signed or in negotiation contracts for the exploitation of gas and oil reserves.
RICHARD BUTLER: Could I intervene here, please?
MARGARET WARNER: Yes, go right ahead.
RICHARD BUTLER: Look, I agree with what has just been said. But this is essentially what we're dealing with here. I mean it is hardly news to know that France, Russia and, indeed China, have national interests. But what we're seeing is something that I think is truly serious. They are pursuing their interests - and they're as meager as things like oil contracts and so on -- in preference for the responsibility they have permanent representatives on the security council -- where they have an obligation to see the rules passed by the Council are obeyed, in particular with respect to arms control. Now, I mean, this is a very serious situation, and one in which I think the future authority and perhaps possibly existence of the security council, is called into question.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Professor Ghareeb, this certainly suggests, more than suggests... shows that there are deep, deep divisions on the council about Iraq all together, it's not just naming an inspections chief.
EDMUND GHAREEB: Absolutely. Its not just a question about the divisions that exist among the security council particular particularly the five permanent members over the issue of Iraq. But it also raises another question that's very important here, and this question goes to the heart of the question of multilateralism. It goes to the question of the United Nations credibility, the security council's credibility and the role that the security council is going to play.
I think it was very clear that when the vote on resolution 1284 came, the French, the Russians, the Chinese, the Malaysians sent a message to Washington saying we are unhappy with this. But they abstained. They did not veto, at least the permanent members, and the reason they did that was in the hope that here there's going to be a new organization, there's going to be a new spirit, a new leadership.
And in fact when Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister, went to China, the Chinese were trying to push him to agree to the resolution and to cooperate with the resolution. So these issues have nothing to do with Iraq as such. I think these countries are very much interested in getting implementation of the agreement, and in fact, there's concern about that the role of UNSCOM, because UNSCOM and the way that it played its role in Iraq helped undermine the security council and the image of the United Nations.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Staying with you for a minute. What about Iraq's point of view here though. I mean the Russian ambassador did suggest that, as far as he's concerned, Iraq would have to approve whoever is appointed to this. The Iraqi ambassador to the U.N. said he doesn't recognize the validity of the resolution setting this up. I mean, would Iraq ever accept any competent aggressive new U.N. weapons inspections chief?
EDMUND GHAREEB: Well, I think this is a very good point. I certainly agree -- I don't think the Iraqis should be the ones to decide. But what we are seeing here is that as I mentioned, the issue goes beyond Iraq. It's the question of multilateralism. Supposedly during the first Gulf War, one of the issues that President Bush raised is we were going to have a new world order where we would have consultations - we're going to have consensus among the countries of the world. Instead, what we're finding is the United States pursuing a policy of unilateralism, and trying to impose its own views on the rest of the council members.
And this is where, in fact when the issue comes up, we hear that the French and the Russians are doing it for financial interests when in fact if you remember what Secretary Baker, he said, it's the issue, during the Gulf War, jobs, jobs, jobs.
MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Pelletreau, it does seem as if... I mean, it's obvious that the coalition and the consensus around Iraq policy has dissipated. Where does it go from here? Short of occupying Iraq, is there any way really to force a new weapons inspection team there?
ROBERT PELLETREAU: There is no way to enforce it. But let's remember Ambassador Ekeus is the nominee of the secretary-general of the United Nations. He is not the American nominee. In fact, the United States had quite a few disagreements with Ambassador Ekeus previously when he was the chief inspector.
If the secretary-general was saying by this nomination that "I'm looking for someone with the experience in dealing with the Iraqis, with the qualification in disarmament, who's tough minded, who's objective and honest," Ambassador Ekeus fills those qualifications magnificently. But it is an open question, really, whether he was the best nominee.
MARGARET WARNER: Why?
ROBERT PELLETREAU: Because he represents to many in the region, a turning the page back rather than turning the page forward to a new inspection system.
MARGARET WARNER: Both -- Ambassador Butler -- both Professor Ghareeb and Ambassador Pelletreau are suggesting there may be some validity, some concern about Ambassador Ekeus becoming... In other words, do you see a way out of this if Ekeus is not the issue, or do you think it is going to be an impasse no matter what?
RICHARD BUTLER: Can I speak about that? What was said a few moments ago about poor Iraq being put down and treated badly by the security council and indeed by the United States in this area, is frankly nonsense.
You know, when the Gulf War ended, Iraq was asked quite simply to declare all of its weapons of mass destruction. And the organization that Rolf Ekeus headed and I headed after that, would have verified those declarations and destroyed those weapons, and sanctions would have finished and everything would have been returned to normalcy. Now, it is abundantly plain right down to the present day that Iraq never made those declarations. It has always lied about its weapons. And this is the fundamental reason why we are where we are today. Now, you know, that's the law and that's the fact.
And to say that poor Iraq has to be let out of this, we have to find a nicer person to head the new organization, for example, is a distraction from the fundamental reality that there has always been a way out of this. It's always been in Iraq's hands and it is to tell the truth to declare and make available those illegal weapons that the world community has said must be destroyed. And they have never done that.
MARGARET WARNER: Before we go, I just want to get all three of you quickly, Professor Ghareeb, what do you think Saddam Hussein has been doing in the 13 months between the time inspectors left and now? Do you believe that he has been rebuilding his weapons of mass destruction?
EDMUND GHAREEB: I do not know. If they are trying to build a capability, it wouldn't surprise me at all. If this is the case, why were the inspectors pulled out after consultation with Washington before Desert Fox? And why was this allowed for this whole period if the issue of inspections is that serious? Secondly, I think the broader issue of inspection has another aspect and that has to do with the question of deterrence. I think the Iraqis did not use the weapons that they had during the Gulf War because there was deterrence.
They were worried about the United States. Instead what we're seeing is a continuation of a policy of sanctions that used UNSCOM because one of the problems instead with UNSCOM is that it was politicized, it was allowed to be used as an intelligence cover for activities hostile to Iraq and it was seen by many as being unfair and politicized.
MARGARET WARNER: Yes, as you both noted. But does the U.N., Ambassador Pelletreau, have any way really of knowing whether and to what degree Saddam Hussein has been using this time to rebuild his weapons?
ROBERT PELLETREAU: The key thing here is not reestablishment of the inspection teams. The key thing is to maintain the containment of Iraq and Saddam Hussein's ambitions to be the dominant force in his whole region. And that containment is continuing. I think that a faulty inspection system is, in many ways, worse than no inspection system at all.
MARGARET WARNER: And Ambassador Butler, you have the last word. Based on your knowledge experience there, what was Saddam Hussein's capability of using this 13-month period?
RICHARD BUTLER: His capability is extreme. It would be utter folly to assume that he is not rebuilding it absent international inspection. I have to say that the claim made a few moments ago that UNSCOM was simply destroyed because it was used as a cover for intelligence activities is nonsense. What is more important is that we understand that this man is committed to weapons of mass destruction. I'm talking about Saddam. Therefore there needs to be inspection. And I agree with my colleague a moment ago to suggested that a lousy inspection system would be worse than nothing. I think that's absolutely right. So what we must do in the days ahead is ensure that what is recreated is valid and serious and not a fig leaf.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Gentlemen, we have to leave it there. Thank you all three very much.