Foreign Policy

Powell for the Prosecution

How persuasive was the Secretary of State?

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If you were not expecting Secretary of State Colin Powell to clear up all possible questions about whether we should invade Iraq, don't feel bad. It's been a long time since state-of-the-art, government-sponsored surveillance data could easily wow an audience, as they did during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Powell, while always a moving and memorable speaker, has never been given to Stevensonian grandstanding (Adlai Stevenson, that is, not McLean, who dropped more bombs in '70s TV than Saddam Hussein did in the Gulf War).

How well did Powell's address this morning win its goals? It depends both on the audience and on the points being made. To nobody's surprise, naysayers in the United Nations remain largely unpersuaded; Iraq hawks, on the other hand, needed no more convincing long before the speech. At this point, we must ask the question that always gets raised about voters who remain undecided the day before election day: Is there really anybody left out there who hasn't made up his or her mind? One potential domestic audience for Powell's presentation may be the few remaining Republican fence-sitters like Sen. Chuck Hagel, who must eventually jump on board, and will need cover for the inevitable "change of heart."

Thus, in terms of pure political positioning, Powell's address can be expected to do, well, pretty much what it was expected to do. What about the points? Was it a convincing address?

Powell's address came down to three essential claims: Iraq's duplicity in dealing with U.N. weapons inspections; its continued efforts to build so-called weapons of mass destruction; and its connections to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror network. (His closing comments about Saddam Hussein's human rights violations had the feeling of an afterthought.)

On the duplicity front, it's fair to say two things: that Powell won this point handily, and that that shouldn't surprise you. Short of actually supporting Saddam, there has never been much reason to doubt that the Iraqi dictator would do everything in his power to deceive and, in President Bush's memorable phrase, "crawfish" in an attempt to hide whatever nasty weapons he has. The telephone intercepts and aerial photos in Powell's presentation can be interpreted in various ways, and undoubtedly will be. But we hardly needed such Hollywood evidence to understand that the U.N. weapons inspectors are being given the runaround.

As for continued efforts to develop weapons, Powell again made a fully convincing case, though here, the evidence of continued efforts does not necessarily imply that they're successful efforts. Saddam's weapons of all types didn't seem to work very well in 1991, and there isn't much reason to believe that after twelve years of depreciation, and of disjointed, on-the-fly weapons development, they'll work any better today. "[W]e have sources who tell us that he recently has authorized his field commanders to use [chemical weapons]," Powell said. "He wouldn't be passing out the orders if he didn't have the weapons or the intent to use them." Maybe so, but during the Gulf War Saddam made a regular habit of giving out orders that were impossible to follow, involving forces and weapons that had long ceased to exist. Undoubtedly, Iraqis get spine-stiffening orders from the top all the time, and make every effort to look like they're carrying them out.

Of course, even if this information is not new, or does not prove that Saddam is a threat to anybody except the people of Iraq, it does demonstrate that he is in violation of a practically infinite number of United Nations resolutions. On paper, this provides a casus belli; in practical terms, few are willing to go to war over contractual violations. It is only in proving that Iraq is an immediate threat that Powell could be said to have won the day. For this writer, whose many biases include a belief that the only business of the U.S. military is the protection of American lives and soil (and even that just barely), the only persuasion would be in the last third of Powell's speech, the one that attempts to establish a link between Saddam and Osama.

Here, the evidence was flatly not persuasive. Powell's entire argument hinges on Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the limping Jordan-born Palestinian who fled Afghanistan for Kurdistan after the fall of the Taliban. Let's assume every one of Powell's comments on Zarqawi were accurate, that Zarqawi has visited Baghdad, that he was involved in the murder of Lawrence Foley in Amman, that his network in Europe included 116 operatives, and so on.

Still, by Powell's own admission, Zarqawi and his lieutenants are "operating in northern Kurdish areas outside Saddam Hussein's controlled Iraq." (Maybe he's responsible for the 20 newspapers that are flourishing in Iraqi Kurdistan.) This raises an obvious question: Why don't we, or our Turkish allies, just go in and arrest him without asking Iraq to extradite him? Moreover, Zarqawi's connections to bin Laden—which at best would establish a once-removed set of links and ties between Iraq and al Qaeda—are thin. Since Administration officials always hint that they have a mountain of evidence hidden for security reasons, I haven't given up hope that Powell has security camera footage of Tariq Aziz giving Mohammed Atta a goodbye kiss at Logan Airport, but if so he opted not to show it in what was apparently the prosecution's closing argument.

It's fair to argue that this doesn't matter, that Powell's point was to poke through the argument that Saddam has been an enemy of the Islamists, who are America's real enemies and the obviously greater threat to our security. But is the case against Zarqawi strong enough to outweigh the considerably greater evidence that Saddam has fought Islamists at home and abroad, using methods that have contributed much of his appalling record of atrocities (including a decade-long war against Iran's theocracy)?

To invoke an ancient cliché, he convinced against his will is of the same opinion still. How you viewed Powell's address depends on whether you always wanted to attack Iraq anyway. For those who believe there remain many methods available short of war, or that none of this is worth involving American forces in yet another foreign entanglement, or that this is the wrong war at the wrong time, Colin Powell's address seemed like a formality for a deal that was sealed some time ago.