Hans Blix: The engineer of peace, eandt.theiet.org

Pelle Neroth, journalist, author

At a time of huge tensions in the world, Hans Blix, former UN weapons inspector, tells stories about war, peace, and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Sweden has long been an outpost of peace in Europe. The Nordic country has not experienced war in over 200 years. In the 20th century, Swedish statesmen have been great peace brokers and humanitarians.

I am in Stockholm to interview perhaps the last of their breed, Hans Blix. Former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the former Iraq War weapons inspector, he was world-famous 20 years ago for stopping moves that would have given legal cover to the Anglo-American war on Iraq. […]

After visiting Iraq in February 2003, Blix became increasingly convinced that Hussein had not reconstituted his WMD programme.

Washington and London were not keen on that narrative, and emphatically presented their own. The big speech at the UN to convince world opinion in favour of intervention was made by Colin Powell, the respected US Secretary of State. On live TV, Powell said in his deep baritone: “My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources. Solid sources.”

He showed computer-drawn PowerPoint slides of mobile ‘biological weapons lab’ trucks. However, in 2018, US magazine The Intercept revealed the State Department’s intelligence unit had warned their boss (in strong terms) that most claims in his speech were “weak”. Still, Powell had gone ahead.

“I knew it was a puppet show,” says Blix. Powell cited “an eyewitness, an Iraqi engineer” as one of his sources, surprising a Defense Intelligence Agency operative who had interviewed the man and found him to be a fraud. Powell spoke of Iraq’s import of aluminium tubes to a certain specification that could be used to enrich uranium, according to “most experts”. Yet a National Security Estimate summary had told Bush the tubes were more likely intended for conventional weapons, as proved to be the case. After the invasion, the ‘biological weapons lab’ trucks turned out to be carrying hydrogen for refilling weather balloons. […]

Even with a UN blessing, which Blix ensured would not happen, would such a legal war have been the right thing to do?

Now, Blix thinks not. Dictators might be a provocation against the world’s democratic community, but what does militarily removing them lead to? The West’s war on Libya in 2011 was a smaller re-run of Iraq, and that country is still in chaos. The West’s covert operations against Assad’s Syria roiled that country, where most people had stable, if mildly oppressed, lives. For most people, stability and security trump the right to free speech and higher order values. Would it have been better for Iraqi people if Hussein had been allowed to stay in power, under resumed WMD inspections?

“Sadly, I conclude now that biology is the best way to deal with dictators, as it will one day deal with me.”

It is not a coward’s position, but a realist’s. If you conduct a military intervention for ‘humanitarian purposes’, the question must be: does it work? The 20th anniversary of the Iraq war in March 2023 is sure to revive the arguments, and many of the actors are still alive, keen to justify, defend (or even revise) their stances. And Blix, one of the most high-profile players, has made his position clear. The war was a terrible mistake. Läs intervjun