-- The question implicitly asked of Secretary of State Powell at the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday was whether this war would be a just war.
It is the persisting question in the minds of people inside and outside the United States. Popular opinion may not know the criteria established for just war in the Middle Ages, as international law was struggling to be born. But common sense tells us whether or not a war makes sense.
The principles are that the war must have a grave cause and be the last resort, all peaceful solutions having been tried in vain. There is supposed to be convincing evidence that the war will do more good than harm. The "right intention" is supposed to exist: The country launching war is not supposed to be acting to serve its narrow political interests or for material profit.
Despite Powell's presentation, not only governments, but much of the public - certainly the Western, as well as Middle Eastern public - seems unconvinced that these conditions exist today.
People instinctively flinch at the prospect of the United States, with its 280 million people and most powerful economy and military forces on earth, launching a high-tech war on a nation of 23 million people, already weakened by a dozen years of UN sanctions. They feel this even when they simultaneously recognize that Iraq's regime is a repellent despotism that defies the international community.
If Powell had convinced them Wednesday that Iraq posed "a seething threat to humanity," as some commentators have put it, they would undoubtedly agree that it should be attacked. Powell contributed much to the evidence that the Baghdad regime is wicked and duplicitous - but few have thought otherwise.
What he failed to produce was conclusive new evidence that Iraq is an active threat to international society, or even that it is a real threat to the United States. This failure has actually weakened the American position, since so much had been promised.
It was also a surprise, and a source of some skepticism, that the United States had taken so long to put together a detailed case against the Iraqi regime. Surely, intelligence sources would not have been compromised by earlier production of intercepted telephone conversations and defector information already hinted at in the press.
The inconclusiveness of the American case had been telegraphed several days earlier, when a State Department source told reporters that the president himself would eventually furnish the decisive evidence that justified military intervention, and that the secretary of state was simply preparing the ground for Bush.
Powell saw to it that George Tenet, the CIA director, was with him at the United Nations. He has not come as far as he has through the politicized jungles of Pentagon and White House bureaucracies without learning that in difficult circumstances, blame is better shared.
The real American problem derives from the moral question of proportionality. Is an attack on Iraq an act of justice - that is, is it a disinterested act to protect regional and international security?
To the extent that people close to the Bush administration have framed regime change in Iraq as part of a geopolitical strategy that primarily serves perceived American and Israeli national interests in the region, the other Security Council members, as well as international opinion, remain reluctant to see matters as Washington would like them seen.
For Washington, the argument over war or peace is settled. The only relevant arguments are how to maximize political support for the United States in waging war, and how to assemble practical and financial support for its vast project to remake Iraq - and the Middle East - after the war.
Powell's speech does not seem to have changed the situation. If more governments rally to the American cause, it will be pressure, not persuasion, that brings them over.
Copyright © 2003 the International Herald Tribune