More than five months ago, there was a debate in the Bush administration. Should the United States go back to the United Nations for yet another Security Council resolution giving Iraq yet another last chance to disarm, or should the U.S. bypass the U.N.? On September 1, 2002, CNN put it this way:
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called Sunday for U.N. weapons inspectors to return to Iraq. He also suggested a debate among the international community is needed over Iraq and downplayed talk about a possible rift within the Bush administration over how to proceed on the issue. “The president has been clear that he believes weapons inspectors should return. Iraq has been in violation of many U.N. resolutions for most of the last 11 or so years. And so, as a first step, let’s see what the inspectors find. Why are they being kept out?”
Powell’s call for a return of U.N. weapons inspectors, who left Iraq in late 1998, appeared to conflict with Vice President Dick Cheney’s dismissal of their value. “The return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of [Saddam Hussein's] compliance. On the contrary, there’s a great danger that it would provide false comfort.”
Secretary of State Colin Powell sure sounds a lot like Cheney these days. The reason is that Powell was wrong, and Cheney was right.
On yesterday’s Fox News Sunday, Powell dismissed a French and German proposal to send more inspectors to Iraq. He said the U.N. Security Council needed to “go into session and find whether or not serious consequences are due at this time.” He added: “[M]ore inspectors doesn’t answer the question and what France has to do and what Germany has to do … is read [U.N. resolution] 1441 again….This lack of cooperation by Iraq and the false declaration, all the other actions that they have taken and not taken since the resolution passed … all set the stage for the U.N. to go into session and find whether or not serious consequences are appropriate at this time.”
On February 5, 2003, Powell made his now-famous presentation to the U.N. Security Council, in which he said, in part: “The material I will present to you comes from a variety of sources. Some are U.S. sources. And some are those of other countries. Some of the sources are technical, such as intercepted telephone conversations and photos taken by satellites. Other sources are people who have risked their lives to let the world know what Saddam Hussein is really up to.” Powell then proceeded to reveal the evidence.
But none of the weapons-related information Powell discussed was any more impressive than that which was already on the public record. For example, the U.N. and the rest of the world have known for years that Iraq has 26,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin, 500 tons of sarin, mustard, and VX nerve agents, almost 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents, several mobile biological-weapons labs, an advanced nuclear-weapons development program, a design for a nuclear weapon, and a program to enrich uranium.
During his speech, Powell also described links between al Qaeda and Iraq. But that wasn’t new. On August 20, 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insisted publicly that al Qaeda terrorists were operating inside Iraq. Here’s how the Washington Times’s Bill Gertz reported Rumsfeld’s comments:
I have said repeatedly that there are al-Qaeda in Iraq. There are. They have left Afghanistan, they have left other locations, and they’ve landed in a variety of countries, one of which is Iraq.
Gertz then wrote:
Administration officials said a radical Islamic group known as Ansar al-Islam conducted chemical or biological weapons tests in an area of northern Iraq controlled by Kurdish separatists. The group has raised concerns among U.S. intelligence officials because of its links to al Qaeda …
Powell also recited evidence of Iraq’s violations of the U.N.’s most recent resolution — 1441, passed on November 8, 2002 — including intercepts of voice communications proving that which was already known, i.e., locations to be searched by U.N. inspectors were cleaned up before the inspectors arrived. The Iraqis have been playing hide and seek with the U.N. for twelve years. There’s was no reason to expect them to change.
So, what was the point of going back to the U.N. in the first place? There was never any chance that Iraq would comply with another U.N. resolution or that President Bush would take directions from any dissenting Security Council member.
Maybe Powell hoped to build a coalition to support war with Iraq a la 1991? After all, that’s what James Baker and Brent Scowcroft urged in their various opinion pieces. But the U.S. is involved in multilateral diplomacy all the time, including coalition building, without subjecting itself to U.N. distractions. In fact, eighteen European countries and some two dozen other nations are already on board for war, despite objections from the Security Council.
If Powell’s purpose was to prove the U.N. ineffectual, he wasted a lot of time and energy on something that’s already known — especially to Saddam Hussein. If Powell thought he was buying time for U.S. forces to deploy, Rumsfeld didn’t need U.N. cover to amass our military on Iraq’s doorstep.
Who knows. Maybe the U.N. will see the light. Maybe France and Germany will come to their senses. But, thankfully, we’re all hawks now. Powell’s U.N.-based diplomacy has failed. And Cheney was right all along: “The return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of [Iraq's] compliance…. The risks of inaction are far greater than the risk of action.”