Who's afraid of Rebekah Wade?

Observations on Hans Blix

When Hans Blix talks, he booms. The words tumble from his toothy mouth in a cascade of adverbs and adjectives that often leave the listener stunned. No one - not even, it is said, Saddam Hussein - would like to be in his shoes. The prospect of war and peace lies squarely on the shoulders of this septuagenarian Swede who, as the UN's chief weapons inspector, weighs every word before it is pronounced.

Dr Blix knows that a thoughtless or combustible phrase here and there, and catastrophe could beckon. But we needn't worry about that, because although this most genial of men likes to talk and talk and talk, he remains remarkably cool in the face of extraordinary pressure.

Other people, as his spokesman, Ewen Buchanan, readily notes, might be having "a nervous breakdown" in his position - but not Dr Blix. He slept on board the British Airways flight en route to Baghdad. And when he got to Cyprus, the UN monitors' main operations base, he briefly rested again, showered, performed for CNN, performed for Dan Rather and CBS (no mean feat), performed for me and then went out for a good fish dinner.

This is exactly why the diplomatic Dr Blix is the right man for the thankless job of both divining and declaring whether Iraq has fully disarmed. All that snarling about his not being "up to the job" from the hawks in Washington says more about their fear of his equanimity, and Nordic decency, than anything else.

After all, one of the Cambridge-educated lawyer's favourite phrases is: "I understand how the Iraqis feel." But save for our very own Rebekah Wade, who Blix admits "seems very frightening" - along with the Sun, "which of course I never read" - he fears no one. Not Saddam, not George Dubbya, not Tony Blair, who has been "very, very supportive".

"If I meet Saddam, I'll be frank," he says forcefully, and somehow you believe him. What will he say? "I'll report the seriousness of the situation and that we don't believe Iraq has presented all the evidence to create the confidence that it does not have weapons of mass destruction. Are these inspections intrusive? Yes, but it's a bit like being asked by airport security to take your shoes off. None of us likes doing it, but we know it's for the common good."

When he presents his eagerly awaited report to the UN Security Council on Monday, you can also bet he'll ask for more time. "The files on chemical and biological weapons [thought to be in Iraq's possession] are quite complex. We need a few more months to complete inspections conclusively," says Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, as Blix nods vigorously.

One cannot help thinking that despite the gruelling task at hand, this dry-humoured former foreign minister is almost enjoying himself.

Apparently, he thought twice about taking on the job when Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, made the offer. The 74-year-old was the compromise candidate after the UN's first choice, backed by Britain and the US, was rejected by Iraq. When he did accept, he came out of retirement to do so. "Why not? My career is behind me."

Why not indeed? After 40 years working in disarmament, and with tomes such as The Treaty Maker's Handbook to his name, Blix is the pair of steady hands at the heart of this drama.

He booms and talks and talks, but he has given us something: he has taught us to speak coolly in the midst of unfolding drama with- out giving so much as an emotion away.

Ultimately, he might even lend his name to the English language: if we can nix something, then why not Blix something as well?

This article first appeared in the 27 January 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master