Was one man to blame for Iraq crisis?

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The Independent Online
Richard Butler is a man proud of what he calls his 'Australianisms', turns of phrase that in their bluntness eschew the diplo-speak of those around him. But, as David Usborne explains, the word in New York is that the UN official in charge of weapons inspections in Iraq has gone too far.

No one can say it out loud, but Richard Butler, the bluff Australian who on 1 July took over as the chief of Unscom, the UN Special Committee responsible for ridding Iraq of all weapons of mass destruction, is in trouble. He is in trouble with Baghdad, of course. But, more gravely, he is also in trouble in New York.

The criticism, voiced privately in UN corridors, is this: in his handling of the crisis that has put the United States on the brink of military action in the Gulf, Mr Butler has failed utterly to lower the temperature. Indeed, by refusing to moderate his confrontational style, he has provoked and offended almost everyone involved.

"The feeling now is unanimous that Butler has lost it," commented one well-placed diplomatic source here. "He shoots from the hip and it is just not helpful at a time like this."

Some of the grumbling gets personal. His detractors accuse him variously of racism and of siding with Washington against Baghdad to the extent that the UN's credibility in the Middle East is imperiled. More vicious still are the persistent rumours of excessive alcohol consumption. "I've given all that up," Mr Butler asserted at the time.

Mostly, it has been those in the Security Council more sympathetic toward Baghdad than Washington or London, who have allowed their impatience with him to show. China and Russia were livid when Mr Butler responded to the ejection by Saddam Hussein of US inspectors in Iraq by pulling out all of the other inspectors. Their irritation was mainly because the Council was not informed until Mr Butler had announced it to the press.

While Mr Butler's competence has been raised in the Security Council, it has happened behind closed doors. A clear hint of dissatisfaction came with a statement issued late last Thursday condemning Baghdad's actions. A draft said the Council "expresses its full support for the Special Commission under its executive chairman [Butler]". In its final form, however, all reference to the chairman had vanished.

At first glimpse, Mr Butler, 55, had seemed the perfect fit when the former chairman of Unscom, Rolf Ekeus, a soft-spoken Swede, announced at the start of the year that he would be stepping down. The Australian's no-nonsense style was considered by the British (although the Americans had reservations from the start) as ideally suited to the task of holding Iraq to the conditions of the Gulf War ceasefire: that it rid itself of all weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological, and show itself to have done so.

He also had impeccable credentials in weapons control. For many years Mr Butler was Australia's representative to the disarmament talks in Vienna. Last year, he was widely praised for essentially saving the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by pushing it through the UN General Assembly against Indian opposition.

Nor should the trickiness of the job he took on be underestimated. The work of the Unscom chairman, whoever it might be, is constantly undermined by the fractures that exist in the Security Council, with the US and Britain drifting ever further from the rest.

Part of what hurts him now is the contrast between his style and that of Mr Ekeus. It is well known that when Iraq is obliged periodically to submit statements to the UN on the progress it is making towards disarming, Mr Ekeus would assist it in drafting them. Mr Butler, by contrast, has refused, taking whatever statements Baghdad gives him and denouncing them without pause.

He has hurt himself with his own frankness, or, as he told the New York Times, with his predilection for "plain Australianisms to express my incredulity about things". In the same interview, he gave voice to his suspicion that "truth in some cultures is kind of what you can get way with saying". The remark was taken by many Arab observers, and governments, as racist. The Secretariat was bombarded by letters of complaint from the Middle East region and they are still pouring in.

But, whatever the rumblings, Richard Butler's position still looks secure. He was appointed by the Security Council and any attempt to remove him would only be portrayed as a concession to Saddam Hussein.