Already, pundits are comparing Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech at the United Nations to the dramatic presentation in 1962 by U.S. ambassador Adlai Stevenson before the same body. There, the former Illinois governor showed the world incontrovertible proof of Soviet efforts to place nuclear missiles in Cuba. Though not everyone agreed with the Kennedy Administration’s quarantine and brinkmanship, there was no dispute that the American allegations against the Soviets were valid and the threat was real.
By contrast, despite 40 years in advances in surveillance technology, Powell was unable to emulate Stevenson’s historic challenge to the Soviet threat. Indeed, while it was an eloquent speech, Powell fell way short of proving that Iraq had anything that could seriously threaten the security of its neighbors, much less the United States. Evasiveness and paranoia by an isolated dictator does not a security threat make.
One major problem was that most of Powell’s accusations were based upon the word of anonymous sources. Given the propensity of U.S. administrations of both parties to fabricate and exaggerate threats to justify previous foreign wars such as the alleged Gulf of Tonkin incident off the coast of Vietnam and the supposed “rescue” of American medical students in Grenada there is an understandable reluctance by many to blindly accept such accusations.
Indeed, chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix has rejected many of Powell’s claims. For example, the respected Swedish diplomat has insisted that there is no evidence of mobile biological weapons laboratories, of Iraq trying to foil inspectors by moving equipment before his teams arrived, or that his organization has been infiltrated by Iraqi spies.
The weakest part of Powell’s presentation was his effort to link the decidedly secular Iraqi regime with the fundamentalist Al Qaeda, whose leader Osama bin Laden has referred to Saddam as “an apostate, an infidel and a traitor to Islam.” Reports cited by Powell attempting to link Saddam to affiliated groups like Ansar al Islam has come almost exclusively from anti-Saddam Iraqis in exile hoping that establishing such a link could encourage U.S. military action to oust the dictator; as a result, they are not generally considered credible. In reality, Ansar al Islam's stated goal is to overthrow the secular Baathist regime in Baghdad and replace it by an Islamist state. The efforts to tie alleged Al-Qaeda figure Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi to the Iraqi regime have also been based largely on unattributed sources. That he received medical treatment in Baghdad is no more proof of direct involvement by the Iraqi regime in his activities than the presence of scores of Al-Qaeda leaders in allied countries like Saudi Arabia as proof of state collusion either. Ansar al Islam fighters and their Al-Qaeda supporters have been seen only in autonomous Kurdish areas beyond Iraqi government control.
Indeed, Powell’s claim that there had been “decades” of contact between Saddam and al-Qaeda was particularly odd, given that the terrorist network is less than ten years old.
Furthermore, none of the September 11 hijackers were Iraqi, none of Al-Qaeda’s leaders are Iraqi, and none of the money trail has been traced to Iraq. (The same cannot be said of Saudi Arabia, but the kingdom is considered an important U.S. ally.)
Perhaps Powell’s strongest arguments came in regard to some strong circumstantial evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime was not fully cooperating with the strengthened inspections regime implemented under UN Security Council resolution 1441. Virtually everybody already assumed this was the case, however, particularly since Hans Blix gave his mixed assessment of Iraqi cooperation the previous week.
Such evasiveness alone does not meet the resolution's definition of material breach. Even if Saddam Hussein has been keeping one step ahead of the inspections and squirreling away the proscribed materials somewhere, it is highly unlikely that with inspectors on the ground and spy satellites in the air they could be deployed in such a way to be an offensive military threat to anyone. In short, even if Saddam Hussein is not completely disarmed, he is functionally disarmed. The use of military force under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter is based upon the need to maintain world peace and security, not to enforce largely technical violations.
Powell’s claims that Iraq could spray anthrax from one its F-1 Mirage jet fighters could sound alarming until one realizes that no Iraqi military aircraft could even get as far as the border without being shot down by U.S. planes or the sophisticated anti-aircraft systems of neighboring states.
The Secretary of State did not bother mentioning that the seed stock for Iraq’s anthrax was sold to Saddam Hussein back in the 1980s by the United States. Nor, in his reference to Iraq’s use of chemical weapons during that period, did he mention that U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency officials helped Iraq target Iranian troop concentrations in the full knowledge that the Iraqi army was using these banned weapons. Neither did Powell acknowledge that the United States covered up for the Halabja massacre when thousands of Kurdish civilians died in an Iraqi chemical weapons attack by falsely claiming that Iran was responsible.
Furthermore, despite the U.S.-sponsored UNSC resolution 1441 that calls that all relevant intelligence information be given immediately to UNMOVIC, key accusations made by Powell were in reference to a series of alleged incidents some months earlier about which Blix and his associates were apparently never informed.
While no one can dispute Powell’s assertions of human rights abuses by the Saddam Hussein, most of the examples he gave were from over a decade and a half ago, when the United States was supporting the regime. Furthermore, few in the Security Council believe that a representative of the same government that has supported thugs from Suharto to Pinochet is genuinely appalled at Saddam’s human rights record.
Similarly, a government that has blocked enforcement of scores of Security Council resolutions when they have involved such allies as Indonesia, Israel, Morocco and Turkey -- including UN Security Council resolution 487, which calls on Israel to place its nuclear facilities under the safeguard of the International Atomic Energy Agency -- is hardly one to complain that the United Nations “places itself in danger of irrelevance if it allows Iraq to continue to defy its will.”
It is doubtful, then, that the UN Security Council would authorize the use of force under these circumstances, though there is a decent chance that, in part as a result of Powell’s speech, they would be willing to ratchet up the pressure against the Iraqi dictator. For example, France has called for tripling the number of inspectors and enhancing the monitoring of Iraqi activities.
Even assuming that all of Powell’s accusations are true, however, he was simply unable to make the case that war -- with all its horror and potential unintended consequences -- was the best solution. As the British newspaper The Independent editorialized, “ The policy of containment and sanctions, pursued for 12 years, has been frustrating and messy; but it has constrained Saddam. General Powell did not tell us why we must abandon it.”
Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He serves as Middle East editor for the Foreign Policy in Focus Project and is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism www.commoncouragepress.com