Powell to Go for Broke at the UN

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POWELL: Will his evidence sway the Security Council?

After weeks of dampening expectations for "smoking gun" evidence against Iraq, the Bush administration is now teeing up an "Adlai Stevenson moment." That's diplomat-speak for the instant in which a U.S. official trumps all naysayers at the United Nations by hauling out graphic, incontrovertible evidence that its enemy is lying. Stevenson, as President John F. Kennedy's UN ambassador in 1962, slam-dunked the Soviets during a heated Security Council debate by producing satellite photographs that disproved Moscow's denials that missiles had been stationed in Cuba. Secretary of State Colin Powell hopes to produce a similar effect when he presents U.S. evidence against Iraq at a special session of the Security Council convened at U.S. request next Wednesday.

President Bush announced the move in his State of the Union address Tuesday, and its significance was underscored the following day by U.S. officials at the UN who announced that the special session of the Security Council would be open — and therefore broadcast live around the world — and that Powell would deploy audio-visual aids to make his case. U.S. officials at the UN also hinted that next week's session could even render redundant the planned February 14 report-back by UN arms inspectors. The attendance of the special session by foreign ministers Dominique de Villepin of France and Joschka Fischer of Germany underscore the seriousness of the discussion.

Allies skeptical of U.S. moves to accelerate the timetable of military action generally welcomed Bush's promise that the U.S. would present evidence to back its claims against Iraq. They have not been convinced of the President's argument that Saddam Hussein represents enough of a threat to justify military action. Bush gave little hint in his speech of the new evidence Powell might present — the President's indictment of Saddam for the most part reiterated allegations previously made regarding Iraq's weapons programs and its ties with terrorists. Those allegations have thus far failed to convince the likes of France, Germany and Russia. But the emphasis in Washington is increasingly focused on allegations that Iraq is currently working to deceive UN inspectors and conceal prohibited weapons programs.

Rather than "smoking gun" evidence of Iraqi weapons programs, the U.S. and Britain have insisted in recent weeks that UN resolutions place the onus on Saddam Hussein to prove he has disarmed, and chief inspector Dr. Hans Blix this week testified that Iraq has thus far failed on this front. The case becomes even stronger if the U.S. can show proof of an Iraqi effort to stymie the inspection process, because the argument for giving inspections more time is premised on the idea of Iraqi cooperation. It will become increasingly difficult for reluctant Council members to argue against military action if Powell can prove that Iraq is currently camouflaging prohibited activities from the inspectors. Russia's President Vladimir Putin, for example, said Tuesday that "If Iraq starts to present problems for inspectors, then Russia could change its position and agree with the United States on new, tougher actions by the UN Security Council."

If war is now inevitable, proof of Iraqi deceit in response to the new inspection regime would create political cover for the likes of France, Russia and the Arab states to support the U.S. action rather than risk being left on the sidelines with no influence over events. U.S. officials are confident that their evidence on all three counts — deceit, weapons programs and terrorist links — will make a compelling case. And presenting such evidence in a public forum naturally turns up the heat on more reluctant allies.

But the administration may not march straight to war following Wednesday's meeting. Washington's next step will likely be worked out following President Bush's consultations with Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair at Camp David on Friday. If Powell's evidence manages to shift the dynamic at the Security Council, they could push to invoke the "serious consequences" warned of in Resolution 1441. That could involve some form of final ultimatum to Baghdad, the time-frame of which would be measured in days or weeks rather than months. And that might well set the stage for the UN-sanctioned military action that the administration has sought all along.