February 5, 2003

Colin Powell's Case

the Progessive

Assume, for the sake of argument, that Saddam Hussein has been concealing some chemical and biological weapons and interfering with U.N. inspectors, as Colin Powell stated at the United Nations.

That is still no reason to go to war.

Almost the entire case that the Bush Administration has been making rests on the assumption that Saddam Hussein not only has these weapons, but he'd use them in an unprovoked attack against the United States.

But despite all the evidence Powell adduced, he did not make that case. All he said was the United States "will not and cannot run that risk," adding pointedly, "not in the post-September 11th world."

While the most compelling part of Powell's evidence related to Saddam's alleged ongoing chemical and biological weapons programs, the evidence about his nuclear program was not overwhelming and neither was the evidence about his alleged ties to Al Qaeda. The Osama link, so crucial for getting the American public on board, relied almost exclusively on information from defectors and is all but impossible to verify.

Knowing how hard the Administration has been trying over the last seventeen months to clinch this link, we should be skeptical of eleventh-hour productions of evidence.

And as Congressman Dennis Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio, noted, Powell's "presentation failed to make the case for an unprecedented preemptive attack against Iraq. The threshold for war must be that Iraq poses an imminent threat to the United States and our allies. . . . The Administration again failed to demonstrate the imminent threat posed by Iraq."

That may be because there is no imminent threat.

CIA Director George Tenet told Congress in the fall that Saddam was not likely to use such weapons against the United States unless backed into a corner. And there was Tenet sitting behind Powell at the U.N. Maybe the two should have talked some more before the speech.

The claim that Saddam would attack the United States has to be based on the assumption that he's suicidal, for he knows if he attacks this country, he'll be annihilated. It was that fear that kept him from using his chemical and biological weapons against the U.S. invasion force back in 1991.

Now Bush and Powell suggest that he's in league with Al Qaeda, and that he'd pass the weapons off "without leaving any fingerprints," to quote the President's favorite phrase. But U.S. intelligence, which has all eyes on Iraq, would likely pick up such a hand off. If they did, Saddam would be destroyed.

And if the United States does get blindsided by another attack, Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney are going to be in no mood to wait around and dust for fingerprints. They are likely to attack Iraq right away. (Rumsfeld was ready to go on the afternoon of September 11.)

What we know about Saddam, above all, is that he is a dictator who wants to cling to power. That has been his M.O. for the last three decades. He's a power monger, not a suicide bomber.

Powell made one other argument to the United Nations, raising the specter again of the institution becoming "irrelevant," a word Bush used in his speech there in September. Said Powell: "This body places itself in danger of irrelevance if it allows Iraq to continue to defy its will without responding effectively and immediately." And later in the speech, he added: "We have an obligation to our citizens, we have an obligation to this body, to see that our resolutions are complied with."

But several other nations are not complying with U.N. Security Council resolutions, including U.S. allies Israel and Turkey, which have violated more resolutions than Iraq. If Powell felt so strongly about the need for relevance and compliance, why isn't he pressuring Tel Aviv and Ankara?

To be sure, if Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, he should turn them over to the U.N. inspectors.

But is his failure to do so a casus belli?

As Kucinich argued, "Secretary Powell made the case for inspections and disarmament, not war. . . . There is no justification for preemptive war. U.N. weapons inspectors are currently conducting exhaustive inspections of Iraq. The United States must pull back from the verge of war, and assist the U.N. to disarm Iraq."

As the Bush Administration moves into what it ominously calls the "final stages" of its Iraq strategy, it is increasingly clear that its strategy to go before the United Nations in the fall was mere prelude to war.

Powell managed to say with a straight face, "We wrote 1441 not in order to go to war. We wrote 1441 to try to preserve the peace." Such rhetoric aside, the U.N. gambit was always a set up. And now Powell is playing his dutiful, shameless part in the denouement.

Any decision by the United States to go to war must take into consideration the possible negative consequences of such action.

These consequences are grave.

Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Iraqi civilians may die; hundreds of thousands may be injured; millions may be rendered homeless or exposed to disease or starvation.

The U.S. attack might prompt a chemical or biological attack on U.S. soldiers, which could expose them to horrific suffering.

And Bush's war could lead to increased terrorism against the United States. Already, the FBI and homeland security officials are on heightened alert, fearing that the onset of war may trigger attacks on our own soil by Al Qaeda or Iraqi agents.

Colin Powell didn't mention these exorbitant costs of war. All he said, essentially, was suck it up: "We must not shrink from whatever is ahead of us."

In the wake of the speech, judging by the media's hosannas, the American public may be more willing to indulge Bush's bellicose impulses.

That's all the more reason for those of us who see the hideous potential of this war to raise our voices, as loudly as possible, for peace.

-- Matthew Rothschild