Although Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation on Iraq was made to the U.N. Security Council, this was probably his least important audience. The council’s members are not going to vote based on the evidence he presented. They are going to make their decisions based on politics, as they always do.
In truth, all council members already know that Iraq retains weapons of mass destruction and is deceiving the inspectors. As a former CIA analyst and National Security Council director on the Persian Gulf, I never met a foreign government official—not even from France, Russia or China—who argued that Iraq did not still have weapons of mass destruction.
All they ever disputed was how best to deal with the problem. In fact, although Germany is most loudly opposed to war, it is the German intelligence agency whose assessments of Iraqi capabilities are the most alarming of all of the Western services.
If “proof” of Iraqi wrongdoing had anything to do with Security Council actions, the United Nations would have voted to put Saddam Hussein’s head on a pike years ago.
Powell’s presentation was a hit, however, with another of his target audiences: the American people. If this had been an episode of “Law and Order,” the jury would have convicted before the first commercial break.
Powell admitted that we could not produce a smoking gun, but he developed a set of arguments based on circumstantial evidence that made it impossible to believe that Hussein is not cheating. It was like a murder case in which the prosecutor admits he cannot produce a body but points out that the accused was seen with the victim on the day of the murder, his fingerprints were all over the victim’s house, there was blood all over the victim’s house, the accused was overheard saying he wanted to kill the victim, the accused had a gun that he now cannot locate and he can’t explain what happened to it…
And Powell’s success with his American audience should not be underrated. The administration had not done a good job in building public support for a war. Powell gave it a strong shove in the right direction.
Former Brookings Expert
Resident Scholar - AEI
The hardest audience to judge is the citizenry of foreign nations. In recent weeks, the diplomatic tide has turned decidedly in favor of the Bush administration. After the Hans Blix inspection report and the diplomatic missteps by France and Germany, more countries have been signaling a willingness to support a war against Iraq. However, they are telling Washington that they need political cover with their own populations—few of which are comfortable with a war.
Powell’s presentation was a strong first step toward convincing these constituencies to support a war, but it was only a first step. What is necessary now is sustained follow-through. Especially for foreign citizens who will be most likely to dismiss Powell’s arguments or believe Iraqi claims that the evidence was manufactured.
There is much more that can and should be disclosed, including sanitized defector reports, more on the historical record of Iraq’s weapons programs and efforts to deceive the inspectors.
The administration needs to keep laying out the case in any forum available that Iraq’s activities today are simply continuations of long-standing patterns and that it is not cooperating, has no intention of cooperating and will not cooperate under any circumstances. This is the best answer to the nonsensical but seemingly logical calls to give the inspectors more time, and it needs to be hammered home.
Finally, the administration has to handle the run-up to the Feb. 14 status report by the inspectors with great care. There are two potential problems. The first is Blix, who on Jan. 27 gave an objective account of Iraqi noncompliance and now appears to regret having done so. Since then he has veered from his apolitical stance—appropriate to an employee of the Security Council—and increasingly expressed opinions on political questions, like how long inspections should run or whether Iraq is involved with Al Qaeda. Blix’s job is to report on technical questions of Iraqi cooperation, not to usurp the prerogatives of the Security Council by making judgments.
The other potential problem is Hussein, who is perfectly capable of making last-minute concessions—even surrendering parts of his weapons programs—to strengthen the hand of those claiming that inspections are succeeding and should be given more time. Hussein has stated publicly that he just has to play for time because he knows the U.S. cannot sustain its current military buildup for very long.
The administration should amplify a message Powell suggested in his presentation: Feb. 14 is the last possible date for Hussein to comply with Resolution 1441 in full. If he does not do so, the United States should immediately introduce a second resolution authorizing the use of force. Then, if Hussein makes any sudden tactical concessions, the administration can say enough is enough—Hussein has missed the numerous opportunities he was given to come clean and the Security Council cannot allow itself to be taken in by yet another Iraqi ploy.
If the administration aggressively follows up on Powell’s lead-off homer, it should be able to build the domestic political support and foreign commitments necessary for a broadly supported war with Iraq while effectively inoculating itself against whatever half-concessions Hussein suddenly may make.
The key is the follow-through.
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.