For a man who plausibly holds decisions on war and peace in his hands, Hans Blix gives the impression of being a remarkably relaxed fellow. Sitting in his office at the United Nations building in New York City, with satellite photos of Baghdad on the walls, the Swedish diplomat who heads the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) has a comfortable, lived-in look about him; he's the kind of man who in the movie might have been played by Alec Guinness in his prime. He has a caution that comes from decades as an official in international institutions but exudes a wry affability; asked if he would be comfortable with a certain course of action, he replies: "I'm not uncomfortable with it." Pause, followed by smile. Then: "As a diplomat, I can't say I'm comfortable."
Blix--one of those rumpled lawyers who always see both sides of a question--could hardly be more different from George W. Bush, a man of clenched jaw and moral clarity. Yet the Swede's words now have the sort of power that some Bush Administration officials would otherwise ascribe only to Holy Writ. If Blix says that his inspectors are making progress on disarming Iraq, then the U.S. probably will not soon win broad international backing for a war. If, on the other hand, Blix concludes that Iraq has had no intention of cooperating with the inspectors, then the U.S. might yet win support for the use of force from the U.N. Security Council and from nations like France and Russia that have so far opposed a war.
Blix insists that all he does is "give an accurate description of the reality that I see." The decision on whether Iraq is in material breach of Security Council resolutions, he says, is a matter for the Council itself. But after an hour-long interview with Blix late last week, a group of TIME editors came away with the impression that he was a lot more skeptical of Iraqi behavior than has been assumed and that he could imagine Saddam Hussein exhausting the patience even of those countries that presently want to give the inspectors more time. The Iraqis, Blix said, "have no credibility." He found it "a bit odd" that Baghdad, with "one of the best organized regimes in the Arab world," should claim to have no records of the alleged destruction of its stocks of anthrax and VX nerve agent. He was prepared to contemplate a timeline and ultimatum for the destruction of key weapons and their building blocks, saying that the Iraqis "cannot drag it on forever." He argued that American military might had been instrumental in what recent progress there has been on Iraqi disarmament. "I don't think there would have been any inspection but for outside pressure, including U.S. forces," Blix said. He reminded his listeners that neither France nor the European Union as a whole had ruled out the use of military action to compel disarmament. And when questioned as to whether he would ask the Iraqis to dismantle or destroy their al-Samoud missiles, whose range, his experts had determined, breached permissible limits, Blix replied, "Of course." The next day, in a detailed letter, he instructed Baghdad to start the process of destroying those missiles--together with ancillary equipment and related software--by March 1.