There was no Adlai Stevenson confrontation. There was no "smoking gun" revelation. Secretary of State Colin Powell's performance before the United Nations was more of a "pinstripe" performance. In the movie "Catch Me if You Can," grifter Frank Abagnale asks, "why do the Yankees always win?" Its not because they have Mickey Mantle like everyone thinks, but because "people can't take their eyes off the pinstripes."
Powell's presentation, complete with satellite images, enlarged photographs and audiotapes, and delivered with his trademark self-assurance, was a perfect "pinstripe" performance. He looked and sounded so confident and credible that questioning or contradicting him was almost not an option.
And it would be hard to refute much of what he presented. Most of it is not new- like the assertion that Saddam Hussein is a dictatorial human rights abuser who used chemical weapons in the 1980s. Some of it sounds credible -- like the notion that Saddam Hussein would try to elude inspectors. Other elements of Powell's brief were less persuasive, like his efforts to prove a definitive link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda or his claims about mobile Iraqi bioweapons laboratories
Despite the substantive limitations of Powell's case, he clearly won wide acclaim due to the forcefulness with which he made his case. Scores of editorialists, columnists, and TV commentators have embraced Powell's statement as the last word on why the United States must go to war with Iraq. Even Mary McGrory, the veteran liberal columnist at the Washington Post, was moved to write a column entitled "I'm Persuaded."
But try not to get distracted by the pinstripes. The central questions, despite what Powell presented, are the same as they has always been. Is Iraq an imminent threat to the United States or its allies? And will military action against him eliminate or inflame that threat?
To answer this question one need look no further than the Central Intelligence Agency, which says that Saddam Hussein is not a threat, and will not become one unless he is attacked. In an October 7th letter to Senator Bob Graham (D-FL) CIA director George Tenet wrote, "Baghdad for now appears to be drawing the line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or CBW (chemical and biological weapons) against the United States." Tenet continues with the big but. "Should Saddam conclude that a U.S. led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions." A threatened and cornered Saddam Hussein could even take the "extreme step of assisting Islamist terrorists in conducting a WMD (weapons of mass destruction) attack against the United States." But only if he is attacked.
A well-documented new report by the Fourth Freedom Forum concludes that despite Secretary of State Powell's histrionics, "independently verifiable evidence is lacking on the most essential security concerns - Iraq's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, and its [alleged] operational links to Al Qaeda." The report notes that Powell's allegations regarding mobile biological weapons labs were based entirely on the testimony of prisoners and defectors, while UN weapons inspectors and experts on biological weapons continue to question the existence and even the practicality of such mobile facilities. As former CIA official Vincent Cannistraro has noted, Iraqi defectors are notoriously unreliable, and their main motivation is "telling the Defense Department what they want to hear."
If Iraq is hiding chemical and biological weapons; Saddam Hussein may be hiding his country's relative weakness, not its growing military strength. According to a 1999 UN experts panel report, the inspections of the 1990s eliminated "the bulk of Iraq's proscribed weapons programs." Former chief UN weapons inspector for Iraq Rolf Ekeus has suggested that the task for current inspectors involves "tracking down the pathetic remnants of what Iraq had in 1998." Continued inspections and monitoring will be more than adequate to contain Saddam Hussein's regime and eliminate his ability to use chemical or biological weapons against his own people or other nations. And inspections won't cost $100 to $200 billion or result in thousands of casualties, as a war is likely to do.
The Bush administration should help the inspectors finish their work, not pull the rug out from under them by launching an ill-advised military intervention. War should be the tool of last resort. That used to be Colin Powell's position. He had it right the first time around.
Contested Case: Do the Facts Justify the Case for War in Iraq? Fourth Freedom Forum, February 2003.
Frida Berrigan is a Senior Research Associate at the Arms Trade Resource Center of the World Policy Institute. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. William D. Hartung is the Center's Director and a Senior Fellow at the Institute. E-mail: Hartung@newschool.edu