Powell's presentation began with U.S. evidence purporting to show Iraq systematically evading and deceiving UN inspectors. Then he restated for the record the known and chilling inventory of Iraq's unaccounted-for stocks of biological and chemical weapons, presented allegations by defectors of continuing programs and offered a circumstantial argument pointing to a clandestine nuclear program. Finally, he tried to make a case that such weapons programs represent an imminent threat to the West on the basis of an alleged link between Iraq and al-Qaeda.
The special Security Council session appeared to be less an attempt at direct persuasion of reluctant allies than a PR exercise aimed at rallying international and American public opinion behind Washington's case for war. That much was clear from the fact that it was a multimedia presentation in real time tailored for a global TV audience, rather than a behind-closed-doors sharing of intelligence. And his message will certainly resonate with American audiences, a large proportion of whom were inclined to believe immediately after September 11 that Saddam Hussein had a hand in the attacks. The case may have been less convincing for the Europeans, who are more inclined to share the UN inspectors' skepticism over claims of an Iraqi nuclear program and even more importantly, to share the doubts of many in the U.S. intelligence community over an Iraq-al Qaeda link and the evidence offered by Powell probably wasn't strong enough to alter their skepticism.
Differences over whether Saddam represents a serious threat may not be the determining factor in shaping the outcome of the UN process. Blix has already told the Security Council that Iraq's cooperation with UN teams has fallen short of compliance with Resolution 1441, and Powell's objective on Wednesday was to make the case that Iraqi non-compliance is the product not of omission but of active deceit that undermines the very purpose of further inspections. The immediate response by war-skeptical Security Council members such as France, Russia, China and Germany was to urge further and expanded inspections. But if Blix on Feb. 14 turns reports that Iraq continues to evade its disarmament responsibilities, even the most reluctant Security Council members will be forced to accept moving to the next phase: the "serious consequences" mentioned in Resolution 1441 as the price of Iraqi non-compliance. And Powell made it abundantly clear that failure to do so would be to accept the irrelevance of the Security Council something that France, Russia, China and other powers whose influence in international crises derives primarily from the UN are unlikely to allow.
That's why Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair has good reason for his confidence that President Bush would ultimately win Security Council approval of a resolution authorizing the use of force to disarm Iraq. The alternative, for the Security Council naysayers, is to be dispatched into geopolitical oblivion by Pax Americana. And they, too, have interests to protect in any regime-change in Iraq. Even if they continue to disagree with Washington on the wisdom and prudence of going to war in Iraq, a UN resolution authorizing force on the basis of Saddam's refusal to meet his disarmament obligations would also provide political cover for many of the European and Arab states to cooperate with an invasion deeply unpopular among their citizens.
Powell's evidence won't lead to a quick resolution authorizing force. The Council will take its cue from the inspectors. But the Secretary of State has sounded notice that should Blix report that Iraq continues to evade its responsibility, the Security Council will be expected to respond quickly, or step aside. More than anything else, Powell has reminded the Security Council that the onus for avoiding war rests primarily, and urgently, with Saddam Hussein.