Secretary of State Colin Powell’s address to the United Nations Security Council provided a powerful indictment of Iraq. By refusing to come clean on its weapons of mass destruction and by actively deceiving UN weapons inspectors, Baghdad clearly is in material breach of UN Resolution 1441.
But while Powell made the case that war can be justified, he did not make the case that war would be wise. Though making the case for war was not Powell’s charge per se, it is the issue that the White House will have to confront in the coming weeks.
Powell’s lawyerly brief made three crucial points:
First, Baghdad has deliberately deceived UN inspectors. It has moved materials and weapons from yet-to-be-inspected locations, threatened scientists who might tell the truth about Iraq’s capabilities and stashed evidence of weapons programs in the homes of government workers.
Second, Baghdad continues to possess large stocks of chemical and biological weapons and maintains the capability to produce them. According to Powell, Iraq has hidden 100 to 500 tons of chemical agents—enough to fill more than 16,000 shells. It also has large, unaccounted-for stocks of anthrax and botulinum toxin, as well as seven mobile bioweapons production facilities. And Powell reiterated the charge that Iraq acquired aluminum tubes to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons purposes.
Third, Powell provided new details on Baghdad’s links with al-Qaeda. Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a senior al-Qaeda lieutenant, apparently stayed in the Iraqi capital for two months last year. Baghdad refused a request by a third party to extradite Zarqawi, who is believed to have been responsible for the murder of a U.S. diplomat in Jordan last October, as well as several planned chemical attacks in Europe.
Powell acknowledged going in that he wouldn’t deliver a smoking gun, and he didn’t. This was not an Adlai Stevenson moment. (But, then, as John Mueller reminded us in The Washington Post this week, Stevenson did not have such a moment either. Robert Kennedy said the CIA photos of missile sites in Cuba looked to him like “nothing more than the clearing of a field for a farm or the basement of a house.”)
Even though it is possible to challenge the individual parts of Powell’s indictment, the totality of the charges is compelling—especially in light of everything we know about Saddam Hussein’s regime. Because UN Resolution 1441 declares that “failure by Iraq at any time to comply with, and cooperate fully in the implementation of, this resolution” constitutes a material breach, it is now undeniable that Iraq is in clear violation of its obligations.
Powell’s evidence strengthens the hands of the chief UN weapons inspectors as they travel to Baghdad later this week for one final round of talks. Iraq must now come clean on all the outstanding issues the inspectors and Powell have raised. Failure to do so will give the inspectors every reason to conclude that the weapons inspections have reached a dead end when they next report to the Security Council on Feb. 14. Should they reach such a conclusion, a new UN resolution authorizing the use of force should pass overwhelmingly.
But while war would be justified under these circumstances, does the White House have a strategy for victory? Nothing in Powell’s address to the United Nations speaks to how a war would be fought, how the peace would be won and how a backlash could be contained. Before President Bush marches off to war, he must address two critical questions:
First, what are we doing now to protect Americans against terrorist attacks at home and abroad? Last October, the CIA issued a chilling warning: “Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or chemical and biological weapons against the United States. Should Saddam conclude that a U.S.-led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions. Such terrorism might involve conventional means, as with Iraq’s unsuccessful attempt at a terrorist offensive in 1991, or chemical and biological weapons. Saddam might decide that the extreme step of assisting Islamist terrorists in conducting an attack with weapons of mass destruction against the United States would be his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him.”
Rather than taking concrete steps to enhance the defense of the country against terrorist attack, the Bush administration spent much of the past year scoring cheap political points by pushing its proposal for a vast new Department of Homeland Security. While bureaucrats inside the Beltway haggle over organizational flowcharts and who gets which office, mayors and governors complain that Washington has failed to deliver the money needed to protect their citizens and mitigate the consequences of an attack. Even today, a Republican Congress has yet to pass a bill funding the homeland-security effort for a fiscal year that is already one-third over.
Second, and equally important, what will we do to win the peace after the war is over? So far all we have learned about the administration’s plans has appeared in conflicting stories leaked to The New York Times and The Washington Post. Some speak of an American military occupation modeled on our efforts in Germany and Japan after World War II. Others talk of leaving Iraq to the Iraqis. Meanwhile, a host of critical questions remain unanswered: Who will help keep the peace inside Iraq? Who will replace Saddam Hussein? Who will pay for the expense of rebuilding Iraq? What role will Iraq’s neighbors and international organizations have? How long do we plan to remain in Iraq? And how are we going to deal with the regional consequences of the war—for the Kurds, the Iranians, the Gulf sheikdoms and, most of all, the Israelis and the Palestinians?
War may now be inevitable. But it is incumbent on the president to share with the American people his strategy for victory—and answer all the questions he has sidestepped so far.
Brookings Senior Fellow and former U.S. State Department Special Envoy on Climate Todd Stern spoke at the US Climate Action Center, at the COP 24 UN climate negotiations, on the future of the Paris Agreement in Katowice, Poland on December 10, 2018.
[On the U.S. negotiating team at the COP 24 climate negotiations in Katowice, Poland] They work seriously, effectively and knowledgeably. There is only this technical negotiating team, not a political one.
[John Bolton’s statement that the North Koreans “have not lived up to the commitments” made in Singapore] totally cuts Secretary of State Pompeo and the special representative, Steve Biegun, at the knees. What is the incentive for North Korea to actually talk about the meat-and-potatoes of denuclearization with the special representative and with the secretary of state if the national security adviser has said nothing is happening so we have to go straight to the top?