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Butler, UNSCOM, Spying (Article)
International Peace Academy
777 United Nations Plaza
New York, NY  10017-3521

Goodbye UNSCOM: a Sorry Tale in US-UN Relations

By David Malone

Elected in December 1996 with strong support from Washington, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan 
embarked on an extended honeymoon with the US Administration and media throughout 1997. However, 
relations between the UN Secretariat and the US deteriorated in 1998 over Iraq’s posture towards 
the UN Special Commission for Iraq (UNSCOM), the work of which was being seriously impeded by 
Baghdad. Relations between Annan and UNSCOM Executive Chairman Richard Butler, increasingly 
perceived to be working in very close conjunction with the US Administration, also appeared to 
suffer, with Annan staffers complaining of Butler’s aggressive style in dealing with Iraq. When the 
UN Security Council deadlocked completely over US and UK bombing of Iraq in December 1998, the 
triangular relationship between the UN Secretariat, UNSCOM and the US Administration disintegrated, 
amidst allegations that the CIA had used UNSCOM as cover for intelligence gathering in Iraq for 
purposes extending well beyond UNSCOM’s mandate. This article aims to explore some of the 
circumstances surrounding these events and advances some tentative conclusions to be drawn 
therefrom, for both the US and the UN.


The UN Special Commission for Iraq

UNSCOM was created further to UN Security Council Resolution (SCR) 687 of 3 April 1991 to monitor 
the destruction, removal, or rendering harmless of all Iraqi chemical and biological weapons, 
including the stocks of agents, related subsystems, components and all research, development, 
support and manufacturing facilities. (The International Atomic Energy Agency was charged with 
monitoring Iraq for nuclear capability and activity.) The Commission was established as a 
subsidiary organ of the UN Security Council rather than as a unit of the UN Secretariat. Its 
Executive Chairmen (first Rolf Ekeus of Sweden from 1991-96 and then Richard Butler of Australia) 
were appointed by the UN Secretary-General, after consultation with the Security Council, but the 
Secretary-General exercised no further authority over UNSCOM although Butler formally reported to 
the Council through him. While this arrangement worked well in UNSCOM’s early years, it was to 
prove highly problematic in 1998.

The UN Secretary-General

The UN General Assembly elected Kofi Annan the UN’s seventh Secretary-General on 17 December 1996. 
His candidacy had enjoyed broad support among Member States who admired his tenure as 
Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations from 1991-96, none more so than the United 
States which had tired of Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s cerebral but autocratic approach to the job. The 
US blocked re-election of Boutros-Ghali and used its full diplomatic weight to ensure Annan’s 
election. The US had reason to be pleased with its choice early on. Annan made clear that he shared 
and wished to advance internationally ‘values’ championing human rights and humanitarian action to 
a greater extent than had Boutros-Ghali. His low-key charm and discreet but real charisma helped 
usher in a more civil tone in relations between the US and the UN. Senator Jesse Helms, Chairman of 
the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a sharp antagonist of Boutros Ghali, reacted positively 
to Annan’s efforts to improve perceptions of the UN within the US legislature. Prodded by US 
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, with whom he had established a working relationship, Helms 
soon helped craft a bill to pay off a large amount of the US arrears to the UN.

The UN Security Council

A period of euphoria was induced at the UN by the success of UN Security Council-mandated 
‘Operation Desert Storm’ in reversing the August 1990 Iraqi invasion (and subsequent annexation) of 
Kuwait. Within months of the deployment of Desert Storm in December 1990, large-scale UN peace 
operations, featuring complex mandates executed by civilian as well as military components, had 
been launched in the Former Yugoslavia, Cambodia and Somalia. Smaller UN missions were launched to 
support the end of civil turmoil in such places as Angola, Mozambique, Rwanda, El Salvador and 
Haiti. After serious problems in Somalia and Bosnia, Boutros-Ghali concluded that the UN itself 
could not successfully engage in enforcement operations. The UN’s failure to halt genocide in 
Rwanda in the Spring of 1994 reinforced the perception that the UN’s own capacity to manage 
effectively risky peace operations was limited. A pattern emerged involving Security Council 
authorization of operations by coalitions of Member States to enforce its decisions, with Operation 
Uphold Democracy deploying in Haiti as of September 1994 and the launch of IFOR in December 1995 to 
implement provisions of the Dayton Agreement in Bosnia. As of early 1995, the deployment of ‘Blue 
Helmets,’ which reached its peak in July 1993 with 78,444 troops, began to decline, dropping to 
14,374 in November 1998. The period of relative harmony between the Council’s five Permanent 
Members (P-5) ushered in at the end of the Cold War and marked by genuine P-5 cooperation in 
addressing challenges to international peace and security, drew to a close in 1998 with Russia and 
China objecting furiously to US and UK bombing of Iraq and Russia resisting a lead role for NATO in 
addressing the crisis in Kosovo. By late 1998, the Council was effectively deadlocked on these two 
key issues, seeming increasingly focused on crises of marginal (if real) importance on which its 
action was of limited scope and half-hearted at best, as in Sierra Leone.

By 1998, the Russian Federation was so enfeebled that few contested the emergence of the US not so 
much as the sole remaining super-power but, in the words of the Egyptian jurist and diplomat Nabil 
Elaraby, "the supreme power." Although the European Union (EU) was making strides towards both 
expansion and further integration, its common foreign policy remained amorphous and unconvincing on 
international security issues, nowhere more so than at the UN, where the United Kingdom and France 
not only acted independently of their EU partners but also of each other on certain key issues such 
as Iraq. China, while essentially passive on most Council agenda items, responded to Taiwan’s 
occasional diplomatic successes by vetoing Council resolutions relating to Guatemala (1997) and 
Macedonia (1999). (Ironically, these displays of Chinese self-interest were very much in line with 
Washington’s contention that all Security Council decisions must somehow serve US interests.) 
Russia navigated cautiously at the UN, seeming to agree with Western powers on many crises, perhaps 
acutely aware of the extent of its reliance on Western financial largesse (which was interrupted at 
the time of a financial crisis in Russia in mid-1998).

US Multilateral Policy

The most striking trait in US approaches to its multilateral relations was not so much the risk of 
imperial over-reach (or the equally decried threat of isolationism) but rather its growing reliance 
on unilateralism and exceptionalism. The latter trait was most clearly on display during 
negotiations towards a treaty banning the use of anti-personnel land mines (which, in spite of US 
opposition, came into force for its State Parties in March 1999) and during those which led to the 
adoption of the Statute for an International Criminal Court in Rome in July 1998. Having moved 
beyond her early advocacy of "assertive multilateralism" Secretary of State Albright spoke of the 
US as the "indispensable nation" and explained the short shrift sometimes given by Washington to 
the views of its partners by claiming that "We stand tall and we see further than other countries 
into the future." US patience with views at variance with its own was at a low ebb by 1998.

The UN, the US and Iraq

UNSCOM initially was able to perform with considerable effectiveness. Iraqi weapons of mass 
destruction programs were documented, plans for future such programs were brought to light and 
UNSCOM was able to destroy a significant number of weapons handed over by Iraq or found by its 
inspectors. However, Iraqi compliance with SCR 687 decreased sharply over time. By October 1994 
Iraq was threatening to suspend cooperation with UNSCOM and had deployed forces in the direction of 
Kuwait. The Security Council deplored Iraq’s actions in SCR 949 of 15 October and Iraq subsequently 
withdrew its troops and resumed cooperation.

.Although lifting of the sanctions was linked to unimpeded monitoring of Iraqi weapons (under 
paragraph 22 of SCR 687), the US and UK were seen by some as "moving the goalposts"when they cited 
other reasons for maintaining the embargo including human rights violations and ultimately Saddam’s 
hold on power. Indeed, Iraq’s declining cooperation with UNSCOM may have been due, in part, to the 
realization that no degree of compliance would deter the US from its chief objective: the removal 
of Saddam Hussein from power. However, the US did consent to an "Oil for Food" program (adopted 
under SCR 986 of 14 April 1995) under heavy pressure from other UN Member States concerned about 
the humanitarian costs of the sanctions regime to Iraqi civilians.


On 20 August 1995, the defection from Iraq of a senior member of the regime responsible for weapons 
programs, General Hussein Kamal Hassan (a brother-in-law of Saddam Hussein), brought to light 
extensive Iraqi documentation on its "proscribed" programs, which had been deliberately withheld 
from UNSCOM. UNSCOM having arranged access to the General in Amman, Jordan, where he had sought 
refuge, little purpose was served for Baghdad in further efforts at dissimulation on this front. 
Under pressure of these developments, Iraq announced a new policy of complete cooperation and 
transparency with UNSCOM and the IAEA, but the circumstances surrounding the announcement made 
clear how reluctant and limited any such cooperation would be. This episode for a time also 
undermined French and Russian support for lifting of sanctions.


Tensions between the US and Iraq mounted in late 1997, resulting in a several showdowns over UNSCOM 
inspections. On 13 January 1998 Iraq withdrew its cooperation from several inspection teams on the 
pretext that they included too many individuals of US or UK nationality. Despite a Security Council 
presidential statement terming Iraq’s actions unacceptable, Iraq continued to assert that it would 
not permit access to eight so-called "presidential sites". As strains increased between Washington 
and Baghdad, the US was almost alone in moving military assets into the Gulf region. The US media 
and public seemed barely to notice how much the broad coalition built by George Bush and Jim Baker 
in 1990 under the Desert Storm umbrella had withered away. Many of its members no longer supported 
a sanctions regime seen as punishing a civilian population already severely oppressed by a ruthless 
dictatorship in Baghdad. Within the UN Security Council, Russia and France deplored the possible 
use of force and pressed for change in the sanctions regime.

Renewed military hostilities, in the form of bombing against Iraq, seemed likely and, in early 
February 1998, very much desired by the US Administration (as well as, possibly, by Baghdad, always 
on the lookout for means of whipping up further domestic support for Saddam Hussein’s political 
position). However, after a disastrous televised performance by several senior Administration 
foreign policy officials at Ohio State University on 18 February 1998 failed to persuade their 
audience that the Administration’s objectives were worth fighting for, Washington’s interest in a 
negotiated outcome increased markedly. Fortified (and seriously constrained) by detailed guidance 
from the P-5 Ambassadors in New York on the parameters of an acceptable agreement (the bottom line 
being defined by the US and UK positions), Annan set off for Baghdad. On 22 February, he secured 
the agreement of Iraq for "unlimited access" by UN inspectors to the presidential sites. A 
Memorandum of Understanding included several face-saving provisions for Saddam, but achieved all 
essential US and UK objectives.

The US government failed to display much appreciation: "Annan left Baghdad believing that he had 
achieved not only personal but also institutional vindication – vividly demonstrating the merits of 
diplomacy and multilateralism. He arrived back in the United States and heard himself denounced as 
a latter-day Neville Chamberlain by the Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott. The Clinton 
Administration, which had arguably been saved from itself, issued not so much as a thank-you." 
Butler, perhaps concerned at first that Annan might have sold out his operation in Baghdad, on 
reviewing the terms of the agreement commented: "He brought home the bacon." Many in Washington 
were dismayed by a comment Annan ill advisedly made about Saddam Hussein in New York following his 
return from Baghdad: "I think I can do business with him." The remark reinforced an impression 
already held by some in Washington that Annan was too accommodating to be entrusted with 
negotiations affecting vital US interests.

Annan’s optimistic outlook on relations with Saddam Hussein was soon proved wrong. Although Butler 
evoked a "new spirit of cooperation between the two sides" after a visit to Iraq from 22-26 March 
and in spite of visits to the presidential sites from March 26-April 2 by UNSCOM and IAEA 
inspectors accompanied by a gaggle of senior diplomats, Iraqi compliance with the Aide Memoire soon 
flagged, further undermining Annan’s credibility in Washington. Iraq refused in August to entertain 
UNSCOM proposals for verification in the chemical weapons field and on some other issues, viewing 
them as "endlessly prolonging the process on irrelevant and trivial issues". Further crises led to 
a break in Iraqi cooperation with UNSCOM on 31 October. Although UNSCOM inspectors were readmitted 
to Iraq in November (after considerable US and UK saber rattling), the Iraqi government 
systematically obstructed their work.

Following renewed Iraqi withdrawal of cooperation from UNSCOM, and in the face of clear 
preparations by the US and the UK (no longer joined by any allies) to bomb Iraq, UNSCOM inspectors 
were withdrawn from Iraq during the night of December 15-16, leaving behind other UN staff, 
including its humanitarian personnel. Their evacuation was ordered by Butler who did not consult 
Annan or advise him of his decision until after the fact. Immediately following the evacuation of 
UNSCOM personnel, US and UK bombing of Iraq commenced. "Based on frustrating experience twice in 
the past year, the Administration wanted to forestall any third-part intervention, such as the ones 
made earlier by the Secretary-General, Russia and France."

The trigger for the US and UK bombing campaign was a report from Butler to the Security Council 
that appears to have circulated through US hands before it was shared with the UN Secretary-General 
or other Member States in New York. The stark tone of this brief report and its dramatic military 
upshot, combined with a flood of revelations and assertions over preceding months by former UNSCOM 
senior inspector Scott Ritter on UNSCOM’s troublingly close relationship with Washington, created 
an uproar in the Security Council, all the more so as the US and UK failed to seek Council 
authorization for the bombing, relying instead on Iraqi non-compliance with earlier Council 
resolutions as sufficient legal justification for their policy. Some sympathy existed for the US 
and UK approach, including, quietly, among several Arab governments. However, many Member States 
thought that if the US and UK had not stuck so single-mindedly with their hard-line conditions for 
lifting the sanctions regime, Iraq might have cooperated more extensively with UNSCOM.

UNSCOM now became a political football. Attacks on Butler by France, Russia and China grew 
unrelentingly. These countries called for his resignation, for a lifting of the comprehensive 
sanctions regime against Iraq and for UNSCOM to be recast completely. With little support for the 
bombing campaign among UN Member States, the US was in a weak position to defend UNSCOM effectively.

Spying Intrigues

Indications soon emerged in the US media of a concerted effort by the US to use UNSCOM cover for US 
intelligence activities targeted at the Iraqi regime. These revelations, while eliciting little 
surprise from those at the UN informed of the presence among UNSCOM staff of intelligence personnel 
from several countries, nevertheless seemed to shock much of the UN community. The assertions were 
flatly denied by US spokespersons, but subsequent leaks only reinforced the credibility of the 

On 6 January, individuals described in the Washington Post as "confidants" of the UN 
Secretary-General were quoted as indicating that Annan had obtained "convincing evidence" that 
UNSCOM inspectors helped the US to collect intelligence in Baghdad. "The Secretary-General has 
become aware of the fact that UNSCOM directly facilitated the creation of an intelligence 
collection system for the United States in violation of its mandate." The reaction in Washington 
was furious, all the more so as Annan and his associates had been increasingly critical for some 
weeks both in public and, more so, in private of Butler’s style, described by some as "in your 
face". Albright and Annan spoke that day, in a discussion described by one State Department 
officials as "not their friendliest." The Secretary-General’s spokesman stated that "we have no 
evidence of any kind" to support the allegations. "We have only rumours. Neither the 
Secretary-General nor any member of his staff has access to classified US intelligence, although 
UNSCOM has. ... Obviously, were these charges true, it would be damaging to the United Nations’ 
disarmament work in Iraq and elsewhere." Much, including UNSCOM’s survival, now depended on whether 
the Administration could convincingly deny allegations of spying on Iraq for strictly American 
purposes under UNSCOM cover. However, relations between Annan and Washington were already a 
casualty: "US officials in the Clinton Administration and on Capitol Hill said the incident was 
likely to damage relations, already chilly, between Washington and Annan"

Media reaction varied, but Administration efforts to convince US journalists that Annan was out to 
force Butler’s resignation clearly found their mark. The Washington Post intoned: "Mr. Annan 
himself continued the sly undermining of his own UN inspectors." The New York Times was more 
cautious: "Using UN activities in Iraq as a cover for American spy operations would be a sure way 
to undermine the international organization, embarrass the United States and strengthen Mr. 
Hussein. But more information will be needed to know whether Washington acted so irresponsibly."

In a Washington Post column by the widely respected Jim Hoagland, the Administration’s hand was 
clearly tipped. "Annan’s people misjudge the temper of Washington. ‘Their undermining of UNSCOM and 
economic sanctions will drive people who want to clear up the problem of US back dues and other 
problems into the confrontation camp and provoke a serious US-UN crisis’ a senior administration 
aide said to me???The White House, already miffed with Annan over his handling of Iraq, will fight 
to protect Butler’s head a senior official told me". In spite of protestations by Annan’s spokesman 
that none of the (anonymous) sources quoted in reporting on the Secretary-General’s views with 
respect to UNSCOM were authorized to speak for him or in a position to know what Annan actually 
thought, the Administration seemed bent on turning these (in retrospect rather innocuous) comments 
into a cause célèbre. While the Administration accused Annan of seeking to decapitate UNSCOM, 
Washington itself seemed determined to neuter the UN Secretary-General, generating some of 
unusually sharp media comment. Long-time critic of the UN (and of the Clinton Administration’s 
foreign policy) A.M. Rosenthal wrote: "Mr. Annan moved into the emptiness created by the failure of 
American leadership against Saddam Hussein. He brought into his expanding role great charm and wit, 
and a clear concept of how to handle Saddam – with diligent appeasement. By himself, he has become 
Saddam’s greatest single asset at the UN." The Clinton Administration’s penchant for scapegoating 
the UN (most evident following the deaths of 18 army rangers in Mogadishu on 6 October 1993 while 
under US command and control on an operation aimed at hunting down war-lord Mohamad Farah Aideed 
neither authorized nor pre-cleared by UN authorities) was once again on display, and once again, 
much of the quality US media had played along.

It was left to The Wall Street Journal (Europe) to raise an issue much on the minds of foreign 
critics of the US Administration’s stop-and-go brinkmanship with Baghdad through 1998, the extent 
to which successive crises in relations with Iraq and the year-end bombing campaign were designed 
to detract attention from the President’s travails in the Monica Lewinsky case: "When convenient, 
the reports of UNSCOM inspectors were ignored by the US. At other times, the reports appeared to be 
geared to the Clinton Administration’s political needs, which compromised Mr. Butler. The events 
that led up to the Desert Fox bombings looked suspiciously as if they had been orchestrated to 
delay an impeachment vote in the US Congress."

Meanwhile, revelations of the US intelligence community’s modus operandi on cooperation with UNSCOM 
continued to leak out of Washington. The Washington Post (and soon others, using an apparently wide 
array of US sources) alleged that, as of early 1998, the National Security Agency, while passing on 
to UNSCOM material relevant to its mandate captured by US technology planted in Iraq on UNSCOM’s 
behalf, channeled other information pertinent to the Iraqi regime’s struggle for political survival 
solely to a Washington clientele.

A gray zone increasingly drawn to public attention in early 1999 was the overlap between 
Washington’s technical support for UN intelligence gathering and its efforts to procure information 
under UNSCOM cover for its own purposes, as reportedly recognized by State Department Spokesman 
James Foley. The Boston Globe described its significance: "The meaning of the disclosures about 
electronic eavesdropping on Iraq is not that UNSCOM was spying for a third party but that third 
parties ...were exploiting their roles as legitimate providers of technical assistance to penetrate 
Saddam’s police state." That Annan was stoutly defended in the rest of the world for pointing to 
the consequences of any US spying under UN cover may have further excited the US Administration’s 
irritation. Once it became clear that allegations of US intelligence gathering for its own account 
were true, the editorial line of some leading US publications, including traditional strong 
supporters of the UN, shifted to justifying the US practice. The Los Angeles Times opined: "Iraqi 
behavior has simply allowed no alternative to using every intelligence means possible to uncover 
and destroy its provocative and threatening secret arms program."

The immediate consequence of this public spat was to render Richard Butler’s already delicate 
position untenable. He defended UNSCOM’s record with panache and apparent conviction: "I am 
entirely satisfied with the answers I received [from Washington]. I do not believe that the US 
piggybacked on us." However, Scott Ritter claimed that a US listening device that Butler had 
ordered him to install in Baghdad had been under Washington’s complete control from July to 
December 1998. Ritter asserted that by the end of August 1998, at the time of his resignation, 
"UNSCOM had not received a single report derived from the vast amount of data collected." "What 
Butler did was allow the US to take over." With the Russian, Chinese and French governments baying 
for his blood, Butler volunteered: "I have always said I don’t want this job forever."


On 13 January 1999, France proposed both the progressive lifting of sanctions against Iraq and the 
replacement of UNSCOM by a "renewed control commission" that would "have its independence insured 
and its professionalism strengthened." The French did not offer many details but suggested that 
their ideas were intended to generate debate on the way forward in containing Iraqi weapons 
capability. This they managed to do, with the US and UK increasingly isolated and other UN Member 
States now eager to map out a new strategy. Hints soon emerged of new flexibility in Washington on 
modalities for the sanctions regime and of a recognition there that Butler’s tenure was now doomed.

Annan meanwhile moved to calm the very troubled waters between Washington and the UN headquarters. 
In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations and a related op-ed piece in the New York Times, he 
argued that the Secretary-General’s office cannot be seen as serving the "narrow interests of any 
one state or group of states." Rather plaintively, he argued that, as Secretary-General of the UN, 
he could only seek to achieve his ends peacefully: "Whatever means I have employed in my efforts in 
dealing with Iraq, my ends have never been in question: full compliance with all relevant Security 
Council resolutions; the disarmament of Iraq; reintegrating its people into the international 
community; securing the stability of the region; and insuring the effectiveness of the United 
Nations as a guarantor of international peace and security. By precedent, by principle, by charter 
and by duty, I am bound to seek these ends through peaceful means."

In fact, the Secretary-General’s emphasis on peaceful means here contrasts starkly with his 
assertion in February 1998 that it was diplomacy "backed by force" (or rather, its threat) that led 
to the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding with Iraq. Annan’s discourse more broadly has 
veered between implied sympathy for the use of force in pursuit of humanitarian goals in extreme 
circumstances (as in his statement following the launch of the NATO campaign against Serb forces in 
the Former Yugoslavia on 24 March ) and another theme, voiced with varying degrees of conviction, 
the primacy in international law of the UN Charter’s provisions on authorization of the use of 

John Ruggie, a widely respected former Dean of Columbia University’s School of International and 
Public Affairs and now a Special Adviser to Annan, commented on more directly on the criticism of 
the Secretary-General: "On his return from Baghdad last February, the Secretary-General readily 
acknowledged that force and diplomacy can work together effectively, when he credited the threat of 
allied force with boosting the success of his diplomatic initiative to open presidential sites in 
Iraq to weapons inspections for the first time ever. ‘No promises of peace and no policy of 
patience can be without limits’ he added in a statement to the Security Council at the time. These 
are hardly the words of an appeaser ... " Turning to Annan’s difficulties with Butler and his team, 
Ruggie wrote: "Whatever differences the Secretary-General may have had with UNSCOM largely have 
been on matters of style, not substance. On occasion, provocative remarks and indiscretions by 
UNSCOM personnel have permitted UNSCOM itself to become an issue of contention, both on the ground 
and in the Security Council. Such diversions have not helped UNSCOM’s cause, but Iraq’s, and the 
Secretary-General has consistently sought to curtail them."

On January 12, Butler suspended flights over Iraq of US U-2 aircraft gathering information for 
UNSCOM. The Commission was now history. Seymour Hersch captured the essence of the outcome: "The 
result of the American hijacking of the UN’s intelligence activities was that Saddam survived but 
UNSCOM did not." Butler’s term was up in late June 1999. Earlier that month, the Council on Foreign 
Relations in New York announced that he would be joining it for a period as a diplomat-in-residence.

The US maintained its hard line against Annan. A senior State Department official was quoted on 
January 30 as stating: "What Washington expects of Mr. Annan is that he start each sentence on Iraq 
by accusing Saddam Hussein of being the direct cause of all suffering by Iraqi civilians. If he 
does not, Washington will not be able to work with him, or, by extension, with the UN." However, 
some US news media belatedly admitted that the UN had fallen victim to shoddy treatment by 
Washington. Further to more detailed revelations of US spying under UN cover published on 2 March 
1999, the Washington Post editorialized: "It turns out that American intelligence used UN cover to 
conduct a secret, Americans-only operation spying on Iraqi communications. All this took place 
while the United States was denying Iraqi charges that it was exploiting the agreed-upon UN 
inspections for purposes of American espionage. ... The outcome adds to the difficulties facing the 
United States and others in designing another arms-monitoring scheme to replace the one lost in 
December ... What happened is not a moral crime, but it is a blunder."

On 30 January, building on an initial proposal by Canada, the Security Council established three 
panels to provide a "comprehensive review" on UN approaches to Iraq. The relevant panel report, 
transmitted to Annan on 27 March 1999, concluded that intrusive inspections remained needed in Iraq 
under a reconstituted UNSCOM, thus providing some support for US and UK approaches to the challenge 
of keeping weapons of mass destruction out of Iraq, but contained few suggestions on practical 
steps forward. In September, the Security Council was still debating how to proceed on this front, 
with a UK text, slightly modifying the sanctions regime, at the center of debate. The UK, 
increasingly under pressure domestically and internationally to moderate its enthusiasm for the 
sanctions regime, had signaled as early as December 1998 growing sensitivity to the humanitarian 
consequences of sanctions. However, after the intense bombing of Iraq for four days starting 16 
December 1998, the US and UK continued to strike sporadically, totaling over 1000 sorties by August 
1999, but to little apparent effect.

Some immediate consequences

Among the consequences of the intense irritation with Annan and the UN in Administration circles 
was Washington’s growing lionization of NATO and its purportedly expanding "out of region" 
capabilities and legitimacy in the run-up to the April 1999 NATO Summit. The US was increasingly 
reluctant to allow the Security Council a look in at Contact Group and other strategies to address 
the Kosovo crisis. The Administration also refused to allow the UN Secretary-General any meaningful 
role in securing a negotiated outcome to the conflict which broke out on 24 March between NATO and 
Belgrade after failure of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to sign on to the Rambouillet 
agreement. This confined the UN role to implementation of the agreement reached among G-8 
governments in Bonn on 6 May 1999 and enshrined in Security Council resolution 1244 of 10 June 
1999. Jamie Rubin, Albright’s spokesman, stated some days before the G-8 agreement was reached and 
at a time when Annan appeared eager to play a diplomatic role in ending the conflict: "They [the 
EU] were clearly looking to involve the United Nations in the process. We expressed our welcome of 
Kofi Annan's position in making clear that President Milosevic needed to reverse course and accept 
the basic conditions NATO has laid out." Strategic leaks in Washington invited Annan to butt out of 
negotiations: "The United States told the United Nations ... not to meddle in the Kosovo peace 
talks ... " While the desire to keep channels to Milosevic clear and unencumbered was 
understandable, and the risk of mixed signals through multiple negotiators very real, the message 
was couched in characteristically dismissive tones.

The quandary created for the Secretary-General by Washington’s stance was all the more acute as the 
give and take involved in UN-style mediation was unlikely to have yielded a more satisfactory 
outcome than NATO’s hard line with Milosevic, as delivered in Belgrade by Finnish President 
Ahtisaari and Russian Special Envoy Chernomyrdin. In particular the question arises as to whether 
the Secretary-General, bearing Russia’s status as a permanent member in mind, could have resisted 
successfully Russia’s subsequent demands for military control of a "sector" of Kosovo. And yet, it 
is the Secretary-General’s function to offer his good offices and to seek to bring about peaceful 
settlement of disputes (which normally requires a considerable degree of compromise on the part of 

The UN’s plight was further highlighted when SCR 1244 gave it the lead role in Civilian 
Administration of Kosovo while imposing significant roles for both the European Union (EU) and the 
Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) without the UN having had any opportunity 
to shape their or its own role or prepare for its major new responsibilities in a timely way. On 
the one hand, the UN seemed resentful that it had been called upon to play a role more thankless 
than that of NATO in restoring order and civilian life to Kosovo. On the other, Annan had signaled 
that he wanted a lead role for the UN in running the Kosovo protectorate (presumably if only as a 
means of reasserting the UN’s centrality in the international system and overcoming the 
embarrassment over its marginalization in the search for an outcome to the conflict).

The UN’s role in Kosovo, championed by some European states, Canada and Russia, seemed barely 
tolerated in Washington. US Secretary of Defense William Cohen and General Henry Shelton, chairman 
of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff were unreasonably fast off the mark and sharp in mid-July 1999 in 
criticizing the UN for its pace of police deployment into Kosovo, all the more so as G-8 
governments were unable to agree until early June on the allocation of responsibility for policing 
in Kosovo to the United Nations. It was clear, if anybody had doubted it until then, that the UN’s 
new mission in Kosovo would provide many a stick with which Washington could beat it.


With no remaining alternative centers of power, the USA has developed a marked and growing 
impatience with the constraints of multilateral diplomacy. The give-and-take required within the UN 
Security Council in order to secure support for US policy initiatives is perceived in Washington 
increasingly as an unnecessary tyranny. There is also a decreasing disposition to convince allies 
and others of the wisdom of Washington’s views: it is deemed sufficient that they be stated. Any 
disagreement with US policy is perceived by many in Washington as driven by irrational 
anti-American sentiment or as posturing.

These attitudes led the US seriously astray in its approach to Iraq within the UN Security Council 
in 1998 and 1999, causing it, apparently through a mixture of absent-mindedness and 
bloody-mindedness, to allow the Desert Storm coalition to fray beyond recognition and repair. To 
the extent that "good company" and multilateral endorsement of its policies continue to matter to 
Washington, it will need to combat its impulses towards unilateralism. The contradictions in its 
policy towards Iraq seem to be apparent everywhere but in Washington: "The problem ... is that we 
can’t demand compliance with Security Council resolutions while simultaneously shunning the 
Security Council by pursuing a unilateral campaign to remove Saddam from power."

While Washington has demonstrated that it can behave cavalierly with a UN Secretary-General or two, 
can the same approach work with other countries? As suggested by the US preference for a 
multilateral strategy to address the crisis of democracy in Haiti, 1991-94, Washington does value 
"good company". The desire to include others in the tasks of intervention does not arise solely 
from a wish to share the burden, financial and otherwise, of military campaigns often serving only 
tangentially the core interests of the US, but also from a desire to share political responsibility 
for initiative with others (and thereby deflect some of the criticism invariably attached to action 
by leading powers). In effect, the US in these circumstances seeks legitimation for its actions 
which "good company" (sanctioned or not by the Security Council) can be seen to provide vis a vis 
international and domestic public opinion. From this perspective, the requirement to act alone or 
nearly alone is dangerous when not absolutely necessary.

Washington’s antipathy towards Boutros Boutros-Ghali intensified after the Mogadishu fiasco for 
which Washington unfairly blamed the UN. Boutros-Ghali’s efforts to set the record straight enraged 
Washington. His other displays of independence, his arrogance and his inability to communicate well 
with the American public and political world in English were all held against him. Having achieved 
his ouster and his replacement by its own chosen candidate, Washington might have been expected to 
work hard to retain good relations with a UN Secretary-General universally seen as well-disposed 
towards the US. However, this was not to be.

A poor choice of words by Annan on his return to New York from Baghdad in February 1998 and Saddam 
Hussein’s repeated violations of his agreement with Annan were sufficient in Washington to cast the 
UN Secretary-General as an appeaser hostile to US interests. Annan’s known reservations over 
Richard Butler’s modus operandi were interpreted in Washington as an attack on its own policies. 
When detailed allegations of US spying against Iraq under UNSCOM cover came to light, Washington 
seems to have considered that the best defense would be a strong offense - against Annan, who 
became the target of a concerted Administration campaign to discredit him. The UN, never 
particularly adept at "spin," and the Secretary-General, notoriously unconfrontational by nature, 
were ill-equipped to fight back. By the time allegations of US spying became irrefutable through 
the accumulation of damning leaks (mostly in Washington), the damage had been done. The 
Administration had undermined (perhaps only temporarily) the potential usefulness in Washington 
(and consequently some of the usefulness elsewhere) of a UN Secretary-General of its own choice.

Washington’s irritation with Annan and his decision to stand his ground elicited a sympathetic 
response from the vast majority of other Member States who saw him cleaving to the impartiality 
that lies at the heart of his functions. However, the support of the overwhelming majority of 
Member States may not be as valuable as a constructive working relationship with today’s supreme 
power. The question soon arose in the diplomatic corridors of New York as to whether a second term 
for Annan, should he seek one, was now likely. Annan, to his credit, seems serene on this front.

Washington’s disposition to devalue the reputation and place at risk the potential usefulness of 
this UN Secretary-General, combined with the US’s campaign to rid itself of Boutros-Ghali in 1996, 
raises the question of whether Washington accepts that a UN Secretary-General must respond not only 
to the interests and desires of the world’s premier power but also to the terms of the Charter and 
the wishes of the 184 other Member States. In commenting on the sour grapes conveyed in 
Boutros-Boutros Ghali’s autobiography, State Department Spokesman Jamie Rubin stated (one imagines, 
tongue in cheek) that Boutros-Ghali had neglected his core duty: "smooth cooperation with the 
United States" Obviously, blind subservience of the UN Secretary-General to Washington would serve 
neither the UN nor the US well over time.

At the same time, Annan and his key advisers may need to reflect on whether the Secretary-General 
himself should engage in sensitive negotiations engaging the interests of key Member States rather 
than designating credible representatives to do so on his behalf. He might be in a better position 
to manage his relationship with major powers were he not as directly and personally involved as he 
was in Baghdad in February 1998.

While Richard Butler was accurately seen in Washington as a courageous implementer of his mandate 
under SCR 687, the tensions his high-profile and publicly confrontational approach to his 
responsibilities eventually created in his relationship with Kofi Annan ultimately served 
Washington poorly. This contrasts strongly with the quiet success of the first UNSCOM Executive 
Chairman, Rolf Ekeus, known for both his firmness and his discretion. The difficulties between 
Annan and Butler suggest that it may have been a mistake to establish UNSCOM as a subsidiary body 
of the Security Council, reporting through but not to the Secretary-General. The Council should 
think long and hard before repeating this formula.

In covering the events chronicled here, the editorial pages of several US newspapers hewed 
disturbingly close to the Washington Administration’s line, seemingly suspending disbelief. While 
reporting, notably by the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, and the Boston Globe’s Colum Lynch 
proved excellent and insightful, editorial bombast in support of what later proved to be misleading 
positions peddled by the Administration (or segments thereof) suggests both the depths of the UN’s 
problems with US media opinion-makers (even those not inherently hostile to the organization), but 
also editorial standards that seem to fall well below those achieved by several European media 
organizations more constitutionally skeptical of their governments’ spin operations.

The flare-up between Washington and the UN Secretary-General over the ignominious end of UNSCOM and 
related events reveals not only some of Washington’s less palatable pathologies but also points at 
approaches Washington must seek to avoid or moderate. In this, it represents not only a sadly 
colorful case-study but perhaps also an instructive one.
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