In the coming weeks, the only person standing between the United States and war with Iraq could be chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix.
The bespectacled career diplomat and bureaucrat is a former Swedish foreign minister who was lured out of retirement to head the new United Nations inspections commission. Though he previously spent 16 years as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, some today worry that he's about to embark on Mission Impossible. Saddam Hussein boasts a track record of hiding and deceiving and Washington seems bent on his removal regardless of what the weapons inspectors accomplish.
And Mr. Blix does not inspire absolute confidence, say some analysts.
His past, they note, indicates he may be averse to ruffling feathers in Baghdad, or among the permanent members of the UN Security Council who resist America's disarm-or-else approach.
"He has a long history of shrinking away from confrontations," says Kelly Motz, a research associate for the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control. "He'll definitely be more worried about the feelings of the Iraqis than his predecessors were."
It was Blix who was head of the IAEA in 1990 when it gave Iraq a clean bill of health, only to be humiliated after the Gulf War when Baghdad's secret nuclear program was uncovered.
For now, at least, Blix is embracing the tough talk of the UN Security Council's most influential member, the United States, although officially, he takes marching orders from the entire 15-member Security Council.
Meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell and other administration brass Friday, Blix agreed that Iraq must issue a full declaration of any existing biological, chemical, and nuclear programs. This would establish a crucial benchmark: If any lies are detected later, this "noncompliance" would justify military action, analysts say.
While in Washington, Blix also appeared to endorse US threats of "consequences" for noncompliance. "I think it is clear that there has to be constant pressure," he told reporters. And on Thursday, after briefing the Security Council, Blix agreed not to follow through on his plan to send an advance team of inspectors to Iraq in mid-October, and said inspections themselves would not resume without a new resolution. "We are in [the Council's] hands," Blix told the press after the meeting. "It would be an awkward situation if we were already working there and were given a new directive."
This, though, came a few days after Blix held controversial talks in Vienna with Iraqi officials. Blix operating under 1998 and '99 UN agreements now viewed by many as too lenient was there to discuss the logistics of returning inspectors after a four-year hiatus. But Iraqi negotiators spun a PR victory out of the meeting, proclaiming all aspects of inspections resolved and declaring that a 1998 agreement to keep eight so-called "presidential sites" off-limits had been left intact. Some supporters promptly praised Baghdad for its "show of good faith."
But Powell called a quick press conference in Washington, in time for the evening news, to clarify that no deal had been struck. He said the contentious issue of inspecting eight presidential sites often referred to misleadingly as "palaces," but which total some 30 square miles and contain 1,100 buildings would be revised and tightened in the new resolution.
Some analysts faulted Blix for not awaiting a new UN mandate before resuming talks with Iraq.
"It makes Iraq think that Blix is not tight with America and Britain, and gives them hope they can manipulate him and the inspectors to split the Security Council," says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security and an IAEA inspector in Iraq in 1996. "There shouldn't be any daylight between the Security Council and the inspectors."
Blix took the helm of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) in January 2000, a month after the Security Council created it to replace the tainted UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) inspections team, which had disintegrated a year earlier.
Blix was not the first candidate for the job of chief inspector, however. In fact, he was reportedly the 24th. But when, one by one, the others failed to pass muster with Security Council members, who feared they might provoke an even less cooperative attitude in Baghdad, Blix was hailed as a "compromise" choice. Respected for his neutrality, he was expected to be far less confrontational with Iraq than previous chief inspectors, and less provocative to Iraq's two leading advocates on the Council, Russia and France.
On his appointment, Blix said it was not UNMOVIC's role to humiliate Baghdad.
"One must remember always that Iraq is not a country under occupation," he told the media. "You cannot go on forever to take the authorities by surprise. Inspectors are not an army, not a commando troop that can leap in and shoot their way to the target."
But many observers were disappointed in Blix, particularly in his abiding respect for national sovereignty even that of a nation like Iraq.
"Mr. Blix is a man of unquestioned integrity and tact," a New York Times editorial opined. "But he seems unlikely to provide the forceful leadership needed to keep Saddam Hussein from cheating."
Few observers entirely absolve Blix of responsibility in the 1990 IAEA-Iraqi inspection fiasco. But some suggest his oversight was the result of a flawed UN mandate that only allowed inspections of sites that signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (like Iraq) had "declared" to be involved with nuclear energy.
Still, critics say Baghdad had left a clear paper trail of procurement of materials for potential use in nuclear weapons, and that Blix stuck rigidly to the letter of the law, authorizing his teams to inspect only declared buildings.
Supporters say critics should take into account the environment in which Blix must operate.
"If you're an international civil servant, especially from a smaller country, and the elephants are charging each other, battling tusk to tusk," says Jeff Laurenti, executive director of policy studies for the nonpartisan United Nations Association, "you know that offering an unsolicited view of the political merits will just get you gored as collateral damage."
Apparently to avoid such a scenario, Blix last week quickly scrapped his plan to return to Iraq until after a new Security Council resolution is passed. One Western diplomat to the 15-member Council says Blix was impressive in the meeting.
"He's so good at sitting in a hot seat and not getting burned," the diplomat says. "And the seat is going to get hotter."
Critics say they don't doubt Blix's diplomatic prowess but they expect him to enforce both the spirit and the letter of whatever new resolution emerges. "Let's not forget," says Ms. Motz, "this is an imposed disarmament of Iraq, not arms control between equal parties. This was not something Iraq signed up for willingly."
"You can't let Iraq get away with anything. This is regime that has proven its intent to keep its weapons program, and proven themselves good at lying, concealing, and moving parts around to keep them hidden. Blix has to be a strong leader to go in there and beat Saddam at his own game."