We know in advance that Colin Powell's performance will be flawless. His military career has prepared him well to execute the orders of his commander in chief, no matter what his doubts as to their morality, efficacy or logic. Making a seamless case for preemptive war on Iraq to the United Nations, the secretary of State can draw on his decade of wartime experience in which he publicly justified the deaths of more than a million Vietnamese, tens of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Laotians and Cambodians.
It took two decades for Powell, in his autobiography "My American Journey," to acknowledge that all the destruction brought down upon Indochina by the U.S. was based on an uneducated, unfocused and enormously costly policy that he and other military leaders had known to be "bankrupt."
But duty, apparently, required they not tell the public the truth.
"War should be the politics of last resort. And when we go to war, we should have a purpose that our people understand and support," he wrote, summarizing Vietnam's lessons.
Does anybody outside of the extremist claque of think-tank warriors bending the president's ear really think we are at the point of "last resort" with Iraq, a poor country half a world away that is already divvied up into "no-fly" zones, crawling with U.N. inspectors and still shattered economically and militarily from two previous wars? Or that the American people, so divided and apathetic in polls on the subject, "understand and support" why we would start a firestorm in Baghdad and then send our young men and women to fight in its streets?
Regardless of Saddam Hussein's record of cruelty and regional power ambitions, as a military man Powell should be employing a straightforward equation: Does the target pose a direct threat to U.S. security? In the case of Iraq in 2003, the answer can be yes only if Powell is prepared to swallow a trio of Big Lies, the first of which is that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction that pose a real threat to the U.S. or our allies.
"There is no evidence that Iraq has revived its nuclear program since the elimination of the program in the 1990s," said the U.N.'s chief nuclear weapons inspector, Mohamed ElBaradei.
Less clear is whether Iraq has made at least token efforts to replenish stocks of biological and chemical weapons. In any case, Iraq can deliver payloads only to regional enemies, and the most likely target, Israel, is armed with nuclear weapons.
However, Powell has gone way beyond these facts, claiming U.N. inspectors found that Iraq was concealing and moving illicit material. The U.N.'s chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, categorically denied this in an interview last week with the New York Times, part of a comprehensive rebuke to White House exploitation and media misinterpretation of his balanced, dispassionate report.
Similarly, Powell and the president have employed an irresponsible pattern of exaggeration and innuendo in an attempt to link Iraq to Al Qaeda. This shameful canard molds a few extremely fuzzy and circumstantial bits of proto-evidence into an absurdly convenient "proof" that taking over Iraq will help prevent anti-American terrorism.
In a New York Times report Sunday, sources inside U.S. intelligence agencies "said they were baffled by the Bush administration's insistence on a solid link between Iraq and Osama bin Laden's network," they were upset that "the intelligence is obviously being politicized" and that "we've been looking at this hard for more than a year and you know what, we just don't think it's there." Blix also said there was no evidence Iraq had or planned to supply weapons to Al Qaeda.
All of which brings us to the most outrageous Big Lie of the Bush administration: that delaying an invasion to wait for the U.N. to complete inspections would endanger the U.S. The fact is that for more than a decade the military containment of Iraq has effectively neutered Hussein, and there is no reason to believe that can't continue.
Of course, there is a case to be made for keeping up pressure on Iraq to cooperate further with the U.N. It is, however, counterproductive to transparently lie to a skeptical world and immoral to denigrate the inspection process because we are afraid it will undermine our cobbled-together rationale for going to war.
As Powell knows from his Vietnam experience, lies have a way of catching up with you. Years from now, if the U.S. is still spending billions trying to micromanage the Middle East and reaping its rewards in blood, Bush will be marked indelibly, like Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon before him, as a leader who went to war on a lie.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times