It was too much to ask that Secretary of State Colin Powell go before the United Nations to make a realistic statement like: "Look, Bush still has trouble finding Iraq on a map. Cheney is focused on bailing out Halliburton by grabbing another oil field. Rumsfeld just wants to get his war on. Iraq is pretty much disarmed. Any threat that it might pose can be contained. So let the weapons inspectors do their job and we'll talk some more about this in a few months."
But it would have been refreshing if Powell had displayed a little of the independent thinking that has made him one of the most respected figures in American public life.
The Colin Powell who told successive Republican national conventions that the party needed to ease up on issues like abortion, affirmative action and welfare reform did not go to the United Nations Wednesday. Instead, the United States sent the good soldier who has refused to break ranks when lesser men have decided to make war.
There are those who will suggest that Powell sincerely believes that Iraq poses a threat to the United States - either as a country that possesses weapons of mass destruction or that harbors al-Qaida terrorists - and that the threat is sufficient to merit launching a war. Certainly, Powell seemed convinced Wednesday, and he made a game effort to convince others.
But it is not hard to figure out why sincere observers - across the United States and around the world - remained skeptical about the secretary of state's pronouncements. After all, it was Powell who forced the Bush administration to break with the desktop commandos of Washington's neo-conservative think tanks and listen to the sentiments of Americans who said this country should reject unilateralism and work with the United Nations to disarm Iraq.
Powell's determination to work with the United Nations led to the current weapons inspections in Iraq. The inspections are incomplete, and the inspectors themselves say that nothing in Iraq's response to the inspections or in the discoveries they have made thus far argues for going to war.
The United States has lost a great deal of credibility with the international community in recent weeks by pressing for an end to inspections so that a war can begin. As former South African President Nelson Mandela noted Wednesday, the world is inclined to believe that chief U.N. weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed El Baradei are best positioned to determine whether Iraq is complying with U.N. resolutions - not Powell.
For Powell to be a credible advocate for dismissing their arguments, he would have had to appear before the United Nations as a genuinely independent player with a powerful case that something dramatic had changed in Iraq since last summer. Instead, he simply wrapped standard Bush rhetoric in some new speculation about hidden weapons and al-Qaida ties. In no sense did his brief make the case for war at this point.
That explains why U.N. representatives from China and Russia - key players in any decision on whether to go to war - immediately rejected Powell's suggestion that time has run out for Iraq.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov argued all information about Iraq's compliance or noncompliance with Security Council resolutions must be handed over for processing by the weapons inspectors. That's an appropriate response.
Instead of seeking to run out the clock on weapons inspections and then go to war, Powell and other American officials should be working closely with the inspectors to ensure that any weapons of mass destruction that remain in Iraq are destroyed. At the same time, the United States should be working with the United Nations to go after al-Qaida operatives, who are still more likely to be found in Saudi Arabia, a titular U.S. ally, than in Iraq.
Copyright 2003 The Capital Times