22 November 1998
Sunday Times of India
The Grief of Baghdad
Not even during the wildest bout of Fosters-induced delirium does a dinkum cobber in the Aussie outback ever imagine his words might one day decide questions of war and peace. By that yardstick, Richard Butler is truly a credit to his race. As head of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), his job is to eliminate whatever allegedly remains of Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear arms programme. Until he certifies Iraqi compliance, sanctions -- a weapon of mass destruction as lethal as any other -- will continue. Not since Gallipoli have the lives of so many depended on the decision of an Australian. With that kind of power, Butler is clearly in no hurry to retire to the obscurity of Wollongong or Toowoomba.
Iraq is not off the mark when it accuses UNSCOM of prolonging inspections, for the US -- to whom Butler owes his plum assignment -- is certainly not interested in the embargo ever ending. By his own admission, Butler has functioned as little more than an amanuensis to US officials. He now says his November 12 decision to withdraw UN inspectors from Iraq -- a move criticised by the Security Council -- was taken solely on the advice of Peter Burleigh, the deputy US ambassador to the UN. Burleigh, incidentally, was posted in Calcutta in the 1970s and is believed by Indian intelligence sources to be a CIA man.
Earlier this year, Butler spread the canard that an Iraqi presidential site was as big as Washington. It was only when Secretary General Kofi Annan sent a technical team headed by Swedish diplomat Staffan di Mistura that the world realised the area was much smaller. Because Annan sidelined Butler, he was able to resolve that crisis and thwart US attempts to use force.
Though not publicly criticising the UNSCOM chief, Annan has pulled him up in private. In January, he ticked Butler off for saying he came from a ``Western tradition'' where truth-telling was important and that it was frustrating to deal with societies where this wasn't the case. Butler was also upbraided for alleging Iraq had enough anthrax ``to blow away Tel Aviv'', a wild claim at variance with UNSCOM's own findings.
Butler joined the foreign service in 1965 after studying economics in Canberra. After postings in Vienna and New York, he became private secretary to Bill Hayden, then leader of the opposition. When Labour came to power and Hayden became foreign minister, Butler was sent as ambassador to the UN in Geneva. Later, he went to Thailand and then to New York as Australia's UN ambassador.
After the Liberals won the 1996 elections, they made it clear his days were numbered. Butler, however, had a plan: he convinced foreign minister Alexander Downer that he would ensure US support for an Australian seat on the Security Council. But the US backed Portugal and Australia was routed. It soon became known that one of the reasons for the humiliating defeat was that many Asian and Pacific ambassadors had been alienated by Butler's arrogance in dealing with them. By the time Downer moved to sack him, however, Butler hitched himself to the skirts of Madeleine Albright, then Washington's UN representative.
Albright wanted someone to push the CTBT through the UN General Assembly after the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva had deadlocked due to the intransigence of the five nuclear weapon states. According to a former Indian diplomat familiar with the CTBT talks, Butler's job was to ram through a resolution which would endorse the draft. ``He did the piloting on the basis of a plan drawn up by the US'', the diplomat said, describing his approach as ``very abrasive and not at all polite''. It was also a violation of all procedural norms.
In 1997, Butler was rewarded by the US with the UNSCOM job. Albright got Downer to agree to Butler's appointment. According to Australian diplomatic sources, Downer agreed ``in the fond belief that he would not only be rid of an insufferable and arrogant upstart but also not have to pay him anything. So you can imagine the surprise here when we were told that the government had to pay Butler some $250,000 a year!'' Apparently, neither Butler nor Albright had informed Canberra of this condition. ``Butler, thus, effectively conned his own government!'', said a source.
In Australia, there is an acute sense of embarrassment at Butler's erratic conduct and his cultural insensitivity in dealing with Iraq. As a self-perpetuating bureaucrat, he is unlikely to end the inspection process since he would then be without a job. Unless he is removed as UNSCOM chief or the US changes its policy, a fresh crisis is bound to arise. There may even be bloodshed. And the whole world will then say... the Butler did it.