Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Nimitz in UN Service: 1998

The November 1998 issue of Proceedings, the journal of the US Naval Institute is no longer online. However I discovered a cached copy on my hard disk in the process of cleaning it out. One of the articles it contained was the third part of a series of six entitled Five Fleets: Around the World with the Nimitz by Lieutenant Commander William R. Bray, U.S.N. The events of that long-ago blockade on Iraq before the War on Terror took on a fascinating aspect in retrospect. Bray describes how the Nimitz was taking part in a UN sponsored mission to contain Saddam Hussein. One of its tasks was to support a U-2 flight over Iraq that Saddam had threatened to shoot down. The U-2 was an American aircraft assigned to a United Nations mission. What Bray described next was how the French tracked the Nimitz task force almost certainly on behalf of Saddam.

Faces in the war room were long, pale, and tired, yet an intensity hung in the air as each staff officer offered final thoughts on the day's events and what to expect the following day when a United Nations-sponsored U-2 reconnaissance plane would fly into denied Iraqi air space for the first time since Saddam Hussein explicitly threatened to shoot it down. ...six-and-a-half years after the Gulf War, the United States is ensnared in multilateral confusions, unable to force the critical denouement that would lay bare Saddam's elaborate program of deception in dodging U.N. weapons inspections. ...

On 16 October, Richard Butler, the new chairman of the U.N. Special Commission on Monitoring (UNSCOM) charged with carrying out weapons inspections in Iraq, delivered his six-month review on Iraqi compliance and progress toward sanctions relief to the Security Council in New York. ... Ambassador Hamdoon, on instruction from Baghdad, delivered a letter to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan on 29 October, detailing conditions for future Iraqi cooperation with UNSCOM. Foremost on the list was a demand for U.S. weapons inspectors to leave Iraq by 6 November and for the United Nations to immediately cease using the U.S. U-2 for monitoring missions over Iraq. On the very same day, Iraq began barring U.S. inspectors from inspection sites. Baghdad clearly was trying to isolate the United States from the other members of the Security Council. It seemed incredible to most in the United Nations that a vanquished aggressor state such as Iraq would so boldly dictate the terms of its own chastisement and assume such an affront would hasten its reentry into the family of nations after seven years of isolation. ...

Militarily, the crisis was centering around Iraq's aversion to the UNSCOM-chartered U-2 flight, which had evolved from an implicit to an explicit threat to shoot down the plane if it flew into Iraqi territory. The UNSCOM U-2 flew approximately four missions per month, and the first flight scheduled for November had slid to the 10th, thus allowing the seriousness of the Iraqi threat to be properly ascertained and a response to any aggression thoroughly planned and agreed upon. ... Inside the skin of the ship, however, intelligence personnel and the aviators they support were working furiously, planning detailed missions against Iraqi targets tasked to be struck if the 10 November U-2 was fired upon. ...

On 3 November, one of the Nimitz's escorts reported being overflown by a plane bearing similar characteristics to the French built Atlantique, a twin-propeller engine aircraft used for maritime surveillance and antisubmarine warfare. Task Force 50 assets were unable to positively identify the aircraft, although it appeared the plane tracked back to the west, either to Saudi Arabia or Qatar, following its mission. No Gulf country has the Atlantique. On 9 November, an Atlantique-type aircraft again flew a maritime patrol profile in the northern and central Arabian Gulf, even dropping a passive acoustic listening device near a U.S. submarine operating on the surface. This time the aircraft was tracked back to Doha, Qatar. It was later learned that two French Atlantiques, deployed to Djibouti on the Red Sea, had flown to Qatar on 29 October for a bilateral training mission. The French made no excuses for their activity, but it seemed strange that they should use a bilateral training exercise to fly maritime surveillance patrol against U.S. ships during a period of heightened tension.

Likewise, in early November, the French frigate Jean de Vienne mysteriously deviated from her published schedule, which called for port visits outside the Gulf, and instead loitered close to U.S. ships in the northern Arabian Gulf until the crisis abated. The Jean de Vienne never actually obstructed U.S. operations, but her presence and odd behavior were highly suspect and a public statement from the French mission in Kuwait that the Jean de Vienne was operating in close coordination with her coalition partners had a disingenuous ring to it.

It would be naive to assume that the French, with their close and sympathetic ties to Iraq, are not collecting intelligence against their coalition partners. What is not known is how much of this information finds its way to Baghdad. One thing is certain, however. The French are not trusted members of the coalition and their presence must serve some grand political objective in Paris that involves having it both ways--appearing the concerned contributor to a collective-security arrangement while at the same time working to undermine that arrangement's very raison d'ĂȘtre. That, as I'm sure Joseph Conrad's Martin Decoud would agree, is the practical approach.

The Russians were ready to play their part. While the movements of the Nimitz and the rest of the Fleet were being reported by French warships, the Kremlin induced Saddam to retreat ever so slightly from the brink, but not all the way, leaving the Iraqi dictator with a net gain. They played the hero to the American heel. More from LCDR Bray:

As the Nimitz operated in the northern Arabian Gulf on the morning of 19 November, Russia's Foreign Minister, the crafty former KGB spymaster and accomplished Arabist Yevgeny Primakov, was on his way from Moscow to Geneva to discuss with his U.S., British, and French counterparts a yet-to-be revealed eleventh-hour way out of the crisis. Primakov had just hosted and cut a deal with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, still Baghdad's lead man on all foreign policy concerns. Aziz, who swaggers into the hallowed corridors of the United Nations with so much panache one wonders if he doesn't realize he's the head statesman of a first-rate thugocracy, had just finished stops in New York and Paris and was in North Africa when beckoned to the Kremlin. There the Russians promised Aziz they would work harder in the Security Council to get sanctions lifted, as long as Iraq immediately allowed all UNSCOM inspectors to return to work and complied with all existing resolutions. Baghdad accepted, and on 21 November the inspectors returned to Iraq, temporarily defusing the crisis.

The United States was being played like a fiddle, its huge fleet and aerial assets led in circles in the sham blockade that we now know was set up by 'friends' on the Security Council who were running a covert rearmament effort called the Oil-for-Food Programme. History may show that Oil-For-Food; the corrupt regime of UN inspections, the AQ Khan nuclear proliferation industry -- and much else -- were all of a piece. Future generations will be astonished, not at how terrible that September day in New York was, but at how lightly the US got off for the folly of the 1990s, escaping not so much through vigilance as sheer good fortune.