Person of the Week: Hans Blix

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U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix

The Bush administration's trigger-mechanism for war with Iraq has a name: Hans. Hans Blix. The 74-year-old Swede is the head of UNMOVIC, the UN arms inspection program that will be sent back into Iraq once the Security Council agrees on the text of a new disarmament resolution, and his judgment could well mean the difference between war and peace. According to the deal currently being brokered at the Security Council, Blix will report on whether Iraq is complying — and if the answer is no, Washington will almost certainly go to war. He'll likely be on the hot seat from day one: The U.S. is not inclined to indulge Baghdad, this time around, and Blix may find himself dispatched on inspection missions whose very intrusiveness provokes a showdown regardless of whether weapons are present. If, for example, Blix goes knocking on the door of a "presidential site" where Saddam happens to be sleeping, the Iraqis will almost certainly deny the inspectors access — and that may be enough to trigger a war.

No wonder, then, that the man is suddenly being feted way above his pay-grade. Blix spent Wednesday huddled in the Oval Office with President Bush, Vice President Cheney and other senior administration officials — not exactly commonplace for heads of UN technical committees. (And Blix may be one of the few Oval Office visitors to arrived via taxi from Reagan National Airport.) That was Blix's third visit with the Bush Administration in as many weeks, and he found time in between for consultations in Moscow.

He's not exactly the sort of fellow Bush Administration hawks would have chosen to send to Baghdad as their point man on disarmament. Blix was actually as a compromise appointment in 2000, when Iraq rejected the Washington-backed Rolf Ekeus to replace Richard Butler, the abrasive Australian whose confrontational tactics had more than once precipitated crises. His reported reluctance to take the job couldn't have been more graphic — Blix was on vacation in Antarctica when Kofi Annan called to recruit him.

Right now, the Bush Administration might be a lot more comfortable with someone like Butler, whose actions were driven by a belief that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction and that it was his job to get in Saddam's face and alert the international community to his non-compliance. One can only speculate on how Vice President Cheney, for example, might have greeted the news that the 72-year-old Swedish diplomat had subjected his inspectors to a program of "cultural sensitivity" training so as to avoid them unnecessarily offending the Iraqis. But Blix is unmoved by any criticism of such choices. "We are not coming to Iraq to harass or insult or humiliate them," he told the BBC last month. "That is not our purpose." At the same time, he told a British newspaper, "You have to behave yourself but you have to be firm. You have to do your job. We certainly feel there is a right to undertake inspections on a Friday or on a holiday or during the night, but we do not see any need to undertake any unnecessary provocations."

Still, it's not only Blix's more diplomatic style that might alarm the White House — there's also the fact that the Swede served as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 1981-1997, during which time both Iraq and North Korea managed to pursue undetected nuclear weapons programs. Again, though, Blix counters that the IAEA is only as good as the intelligence provided by its member states, and if the U.S. and others weren't able to detect signs of such programs, neither could the IAEA. And, he says, the experience taught him that "not seeing an indication of something does not automatically lead to the conclusion that there is nothing." That bit of linguistic tongue-twisting should please Washington; it's pure Rumsfeld.

Washington was also pleased this week when Blix told the Security Council that his inspections would be effective only if the UN body was willing to "exercise the influence that may be necessary to ensure the implementation of its resolutions" — in other words, to signal Baghdad that there would be negative consequences for non-compliance. The U.S. took those words as support in its battle with France over just how strong an "or-else" clause to include in a new resolution. But Blix also raised some practical difficulties with aspects of the U.S. draft resolution, such as questioning Iraqi scientists abroad. He has also indicated that while he expects intelligence support from member states, he cannot establish a two-way exchange with any intelligence services and will report only to the Security Council. Still, the administration has indicated a willingness to accommodate his concerns.

For better or worse (from the Bush Administration's point of view), Blix will be on point. And that means the Administration will work hard to persuade him of its way of thinking as the price for giving him the united Security Council backing he says is vital to his ability to do his job. Like his predecessors, Blix will invariably find himself caught between the Iraqis and the Americans, as the referee of a game in which each side is looking to expose the other's malfeasance. That may be why he flatly rejects the idea that he holds in his hands the choice between peace or war, seeing his role simply as a gatherer of facts, in the same terms that the Fox News Channel promises to do for its viewers. "We report," he told the Security Council on Tuesday. "It is the Security Council and its members who must decide."

— with reporting by Stewart Stogel/UN