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Richard Butler: Should the U.S. attack Iraq?

As executive chairman of the United Nations Special Commission, Richard Butler was the chief weapons inspector for the U.N. in Iraq from 1997 until 1999. He is currently a diplomat in residence at the Council on Foreign Relations. Prior to joining UNSCOM, Butler was the Australian ambassador to the United Nations from 1992 until 1997 and the Australian ambassador to Thailand from 1989 until 1992. In 1995, Butler served as chairman of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. The opinions expressed in this transcript are those of Richard Butler, and are not necessarily shared by CNN.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Richard Butler, and welcome.

RICHARD BUTLER: Hello, pleasure to be here.

CNN: George W. Bush has made threats to draw Iraq into the war on terrorism. How have the United Nations and Iraq responded to such threats?

BUTLER: The president answered a question at a press conference in the Rose Garden on Monday. The question asked what he would do if Iraq refuses his demand that it let arms control inspectors back into Iraq. His answer was: "They'll find out." This has been widely interpreted around the world as a threat by the United States to attack Iraq. I regret this rather Texan one-liner because it doesn't tell anyone clearly what the U.S. might have in mind.

At the United Nations and elsewhere, concern has been expressed about the possibility of an attack by the United States on Iraq. It is recognized that such action might harm the coalition against terror and somewhat inflame the Arab world. Very few people doubt that Iraq is in breach of the law with respect to its weapons of mass destruction. This is a very serious problem which I agree with the administration must be addressed.

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I think it would be better to try to keep the coalition together and to try to get consensus in the UN Security Council for action to bring Iraq back into compliance with the law, such as through reinserting arms control inspectors and renewing the world community's attempt to take away Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. This will be difficult but it might avoid the problems I've already mentioned within the coalition and within the Arab world.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is there evidence that Iraq is involved with al Qaeda?

BUTLER: There is no direct or hard evidence to that effect.This has been recognized, for example, by Secretary of State Powell. There is circumstantial evidence which is very disturbing. Evidence of meetings between Iraqi intelligence agents and both those who carried out the outrage of September 11, and al Qaeda. But, I believe it is very important in this highly dangerous situation that we act at all times on the basis of hard intelligence or hard evidence.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Butler, will Putin be angry if we attack Iraq? Russia has many lucrative contracts with Iraq. How is it balancing that relationship with America's new interest in Russian oil?

BUTLER: Excellent question. A new relationship has been built with Russia since September 11. It is proving to be constructive, and I believe should be developed further. After all, the Cold War is over and it would be better for all if we saw the dividend we have waited for, for 10 years, namely cooperation between Russia and the United States. Such cooperation is being given in the action against terrorism.

But there are still important areas of difference between Russia and America, and one of them is on the question of how to deal with Saddam. The Russians continue to seem to have interests in their relationship with Iraq, which are different from our approach to that regime. If the United States were to act alone on Iraq, this would impose great strain on the new relationship with Russia. On the other hand, aspects of Russia's relationship with Iraq are clearly unhealthy, and it should reflect on this if it has an interest in developing further the new relationship with the United States.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Butler, recently Lawrence Eagleburger told our chat audience that leaving Saddam in power was probably a mistake. Do you think this Bush administration will try to correct that mistake, if you agree that it was one?

BUTLER: It's easy to hold that view 10 years after the Gulf War, and I suspect that it was a mistake to have left Saddam in power. It should be recalled, however, that at the end of the Gulf War the judgment of the first President George Bush was that to change the objective from simply expelling Iraq from Kuwait to getting Saddam's government would not have been acceptable to the Gulf War coalition partners. That was probably the correct judgment then, but the judgment of subsequent history is that it has proven to be a very great pity and very costly that Saddam was then left in power. We now have to find a way to correct the situation.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Who around the world would support Saddam Hussein if the United States attacked? What kind of reaction would a military action against Iraq cause in the region?

BUTLER: On the first question, it is hard to predict how many countries would react. It would depend in some measure on the nature of the action taken, especially on whether it led to a substantial war. As far as the Arab world is concerned, responsible Arab leaders such as the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Amer Moussa, have warned that an attack on Iraq could greatly inflame the Arab world against the United States.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Even if inspectors are allowed in, will they be effective?

BUTLER: Another excellent question. Iraq's record with dealing with inspectors, the group I led in the past, was very bad. Iraq cheated and deceived the inspectors, and it's not easy to think that they would behave differently in the future. The new inspectorate, which was established to replace the previous one, has much weaker power than those under which I operated. There is, therefore, considerable doubt in Washington and elsewhere that future inspections would be very effective. I believe the new inspectorate is competent, but it would not be able to do an effective job unless it had strong political support from all members of the Security Council.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What types of weapons or biological agents were found under your leadership?

BUTLER: We found a whole cocktail cabinet of biological warfare agents. I could name then, but that might get too complicated. The cocktail cabinet certainly included anthrax as a major weapon. The evidence I saw strongly suggested that Saddam was, and I believe remains, deeply attached to germ warfare.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Regarding Saddam, If he was out of the equation, wouldn't his policies still continue in the future under the new leader of Iraq?

BUTLER: This is also a highly relevant question. The idea of removing Saddam has great support around the world because everyone knows how dangerous he is, starting with the danger he poses to the Iraqi people themselves. But, it would not be a good policy to simply remove him without having some degree of certainty that he would not simply be replaced by a "clone."

CNN: What does it mean for the UN's oil-for-food program, which was supposed to expire on Friday?

BUTLER: The Security Council has decided to extend the oil-for-food program until June of next year. The sad thing about that program is that Saddam has never fully utilized it. There is money in that program that he could spend on food and medicines for the Iraqi people that he has simply not used. This contradicts his repeated claims that sanctions are deeply harming the Iraqi people. He could do much better for those people by using the program to the full.

CNN: Do you have any closing comments to share with us?

BUTLER: It is of very great importance for the Middle East region and for the world community as a whole that the deep problems posed by the Saddam government be solved. These begin with a better deal for the Iraqi people and then getting rid of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. It is one of the thorniest problems the world community faces. I believe it is right for the United States to be determined to solve this problem. But I think it should take great care in finding a solution that doesn't make the problem worse, and that means it should be a solution that has widespread international support and doesn't find the United States going it alone.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

BUTLER: Goodbye and thank you for such excellent questions.

Richard Butler joined the chat via telephone from New York. CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview, which took place on Wednesday, November 28, 2001. The opinions expressed in this transcript are those of Richard Butler, and are not necessarily shared by CNN.


• United Nations Special Commission

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