The most important conclusion I drew from watching Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN Security Council this morning is that there was nothing in it that would support unilateral military action by the United States. He promised “no smoking gun” and there was none, practically nothing that had not already been on the record, nothing I heard or saw from the satellite photos or wireless intercepts that would qualify as quality evidence by our intelligence agencies.
The most interesting foray by Powell was his discussion of Baghdad’s links to Al Qaeda, as this would come closest to the kind of smoking gun the American people would see as a clear rationale for the use of force, with or without UN support. His evidence leaned heavily on the presence in Iraq of an Al Qaeda agent, Abu Musad Zarqawi, who showed up in Baghdad for medical treatment out of his recent presence in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. What Powell did not tell us is that Zarqawi came into Kurdistan from Iran, which means he had to have the support of the Iranian government, which is a mortal enemy of Al Qaeda. This is probably what led Gerald Seib, the Washington bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal, to note after the presentation that it was “the weakest” part of it. The news media will almost certainly focus on this point and it will work against the administration hawks.
What would surely not be evident to an uninitiated audience in Powell’s indictment is the fact that he could cite Iraq’s importation of materials needed for the production of weapons of mass destruction – including those aluminum tubes supposedly destined for uranium-enrichment gas centrifuges. Powell himself mentioned the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group as the authority which led to catching Iraq red-handed importing the tubes. But this only supports those who say Iraq can never again be a nuclear threat, because it cannot secretly import anything it needs to make a nuke, as the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group closed that loophole when it was formed in 1998. The other embarrassment to Powell was the failure of his team to understand the error in his saying those aluminum tubes had to be imported for making nukes – because they were anodized. The most respected of all the nuclear inspectors, Dr. David Albright, afterward told CNN that the worst thing you could do to aluminum tubes needed for nuke centrifuges was to anodize them.
Much has been made of the satellite photos and wireless intercepts of U.S. intelligence, indicating the Iraqis have been moving around weapons or materials that could be converted to WMD. The fact that Iraq has offered the U.S. the option of sending in CIA operatives to swoop down on any site they wish, so there would be no question of leaks from the inspection teams, was pretty clear evidence they would permit anything. The skeptical members of the UNSC thanked Powell for his information and said they hoped UNMOVIC and IAEA would follow up to a final resolution, but it seems clearer than ever to me that war in late March is not already in the cards. It is still being argued that 150,000 American troops are now in the Gulf region ready to war – and that they cannot be pulled back without a regime change. There seem to be only 30,000 combat soldiers in that number, in Kuwait, the rest support personnel for the air force and navy. This picture does not support the warhawk notion that President Bush is hellbent on getting rid of Saddam with or without the UN. What Powell has successfully done is keep the process in the hands of the UN.