Powell's Pitch: The Stakes

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POWELL: Will his evidence sway the Security Council?

Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation of evidence against Iraq at the UN Security Council is less an attempt at direct persuasion of reluctant allies than it is a PR exercise. If persuasion of the skeptics were the objective, the session would have been held behind closed doors, if not been attempted in the form of top-level briefings for each of the key players on the Council. Instead, Powell will be televised live as he paints a picture of Iraq's failure to comply with disarmament resolutions, hoping to sway international public opinion and firm up domestic support for war.

The most important diplomatic question Powell's briefing will raise is whether the U.S. has sufficient evidence of Iraqi defiance of disarmament resolutions to win a new Security Council vote authorizing the use of force. That remains the preference of most of those governments that have already declared their willingness to join a "coalition of the willing." Even Bush's most reliable international ally, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, has strongly urged that Washington go back to the Security Council.

But a new Security Council resolution may be some time in coming. Blair gave French president Jacques Chirac a preview of Powell's evidence at a meeting in Le Touquet, France on Tuesday, but the British leader's efforts left Chirac unmoved in his opposition to any immediate move to military action. Following the meeting, the French president insisted that the UN inspectors be given more time, and emphasized his agreement with Blair that Saddam must be disarmed, and that this be achieved through the UN Security Council.

Powell has warned against expecting any "smoking gun" evidence from his presentation. He may, of course, be diminishing expectations ahead of some unforeseen trump card. But taken at his word, he could sway the Council debate even without a smoking gun. Powell is on strongest ground where he is able to show that Iraq is actively — rather than simply by omission — failing to comply with the letter and spirit of Resolution 1441. Chief inspector Dr. Hans Blix has chastised the Iraqis for their "passive cooperation," insisting Baghdad had evaded some of the key challenges set out by the inspectors such as explaining the discrepancies in its declaration, allowing unrestricted access to scientists and permitting U2 surveillance flights. Powell plans an even more damning indictment by showing evidence that Iraq is not, in fact, passively cooperating at all, but instead is actively evading and confounding the inspection process through a massive counterintelligence effort that includes "sanitizing" sites ahead of inspectors, coaching Iraqi scientists and more. If other Council members share the U.S. interpretation of the intelligence to this effect offered by Powell, they would be forced to concur that Iraq was in "material breach" of Resolution 1441.

Such evidence won't necessarily help the U.S. make the political case that Saddam represents an imminent menace that must be preemptively dealt with. The strongest argument on that front is one that might be called North Korea-in-reverse: Saddam must be stopped from going nuclear, because if he attains atomic weapons then the West will find itself liable to the same sort of blackmail from Baghdad that it is currently forced to swallow from Pyongyang. A compelling argument, indeed, if it could be shown that Iraq is in danger of going nuclear. But the nuclear dimension is the weakest element of the weapons-of-mass destruction indictment against Baghdad: While the UN inspectors concur with Washington's contention that Iraq has failed to account for substantial stocks of chemical and biological weapons, they have taken issue with U.S. claims about an Iraqi nuclear program. IAEA chief Dr. Mohammed al Baradei has sent his teams to inspect all the facilities identified by the U.S. and Britain last summer as potential Iraqi nuclear sites, and has pronounced them clean. And he disputes the Bush administration's claim that aluminum tubes sought by the Iraqis were for a clandestine nuclear program.

But the political argument can be made even without nukes, on the basis that Saddam's chemical and biological stocks could be shared with terrorists. Hard to argue with as a hypothetical possibility, but in the minds of Powell's domestic audience, the case for war is strongest when the administration is able to show a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. After all, it's unlikely that America would be on the verge of starting a massive new war in the Gulf were it not for September 11. Still, despite considerable effort to unearth such links the pickings are decidedly slim — evidence revealed thus far concerns a lone al-Qaeda operative outside of bin Laden's inner circle who allegedly received medical treatment in Baghdad on his way out of Afghanistan, and of an al-Qaeda linked group operating in the Kurdish north of Iraq whose connections to Baghdad, if any, are far from clear.

As long as Powell is able to convince Council members that Iraqi is actively working to confound the inspection process, however, he'll set in motion a process whereby the Security Council — however reluctantly and gradually — acquiesces to military action. And reluctant acquiescence may be the best Washington can hope for. Even in the letter signed by the leaders of Spain, Italy, Britain and five other European countries expressing support for the U.S. position, a primary reason offered in support of their stance is the need to maintain U.S.-European unity. In other words, America plans to do this come what may, and it would be better for everyone under those circumstances for America's traditional allies to stand beside her. Similarly Turkey and the Arabs — they've done their best to dissuade Washington, but if President Bush's mind is made up then cooperation with the U.S. war effort becomes the most effective path to protect their interests in a post-Saddam Iraq. In which case Secretary Powell's presentation, especially if it leads to a second UN Security Council resolution, may even help provide the political cover for European and Arab leaders to make a choice deeply unpopular among their citizens.