There is only one thing to say about Secretary Powell’s presentation at the U.N.: If this doesn’t do it, nothing will. If the Security Council and the Europeans will not act on the evidence they heard today, then the U.N. will finally be entering the twilight of its era as the most important international institution in the world. Powell’s speech was direct, detailed, and relentless. It was free of hyperbole; the facts themselves were stunning enough to render high-flown rhetoric unnecessary. There were warnings ahead of time that there would be no “Adlai Stevenson moment” of the kind in 1962 when Stevenson confronted the Soviets over Cuban missiles. And it’s true that there was no single moment like that: rather, there were several of them.
Iraqi commanders discussing the need to hide things from the inspectors. Orders to stop using the words “nerve agent.” Photographs of chemical weapons being moved practically out from under the U.N.’s nose. Bulldozing a site — removing the “crust of the earth” itself, as Powell pointed out — to hide any possible trace of forbidden toxins. Corroborated information from al Qaeda detainees. A litany of stories from defectors detailing the existence of mobile-weapons factories. And proof that somehow, the Iraqis are being tipped off to inspections, exposing the whole sad business as the farce it always was.
The evidence that al Qaeda and Iraq are in cahoots was also delivered point-blank, and Powell wisely took the Council through the chain of evidence that shows that the primary impact of that collaboration is falling, for now, on Europe. Unfortunately, he’s almost certainly telling the Europeans things they knew already but would rather not face, and it’s unlikely that this addition to Saddam’s crimes will tip the scales there. But it was important to present the evidence to the rest of the world and to the American people, and to put a stop to the charade engaged in by so many that terrorism is only America’s problem, and to discard the fiction that Iraq isn’t involved in it in any case.
Although Secretary Powell ended this description of Iraq’s “web of lies” by warning the Council that time is short, both he and U.K. foreign minister Jack Straw really seemed to be indicating that time is not short, but up. In reality, it is long past time to deal with Iraq, but when the U.S. and U.K. act, the members of the United Nations Security Council after today cannot claim that they were not given enough evidence, or that they were denied one more opportunity to seize the chance to be on the side of peace and security. Unbelievably, the Chinese, French, and German delegates have already responded by calling for more inspections; either they are being disingenuously obstructive, or they weren’t in the room this morning. But if these reactions, which are at best dense and at worst dishonest, are at all representative of the Council membership, it means the coming end of any need to take the U.N. seriously. Saddam’s “last chance” was given three months ago. The U.N.’s last chance came today.
— Tom Nichols is chairman of the Department of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College, and the author of Winning the World: Lessons for America’s Future from the Cold War. The views presented are his own.