Colin Powell veers right

After conservative critics chastise him for softening sanctions against Iraq, the secretary of state hardens his line.

Published March 9, 2001 4:12PM (EST)

After raising hackles among conservative Republicans with his new policy of easing sanctions on consumer goods against Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell took a more hawkish stance Wednesday. "I would not call it an easing of sanctions," Powell told the House International Relations Committee. He argued that easing supplies of consumer goods would remove the onus that sanctions harm Iraqi civilians. Now he plans to build Arab backing for tighter weapons and oil controls over Baghdad.

Powell has long set off fears among Republicans that the son of black, Jamaican immigrants is really too liberal for the Grand Ol' Party. So when the new secretary of state shuttled from Egypt to Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Syria last week, promising to allow Iraq greater access to consumer goods, it seemed to confirm their worst fears.

On Wednesday, Rep. Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y., former chairman of the International Relations Committee, said in public what conservatives have been saying in private all week: Powell's proposal to ease some sanctions might give Iraqi President Saddam Hussein more money to buy weapons. Republicans remember that as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell, who never forgot the lack of public support for the Vietnam War where he served as a lieutenant, opposed sending U.S. troops to oust Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. He then opposed sending U.S. troops to Bosnia and Kosovo. Some conservatives were asking if the Bush administration was saddled with a popular but pacifist secretary of state.

But Powell came out swinging, not at his critics but at Hussein, blaming him for withholding food and medicine from his own people, for seeking to build weapons of mass destruction, for smuggling oil and for trying to turn America's Arab allies against the United States. Powell also rattled a saber when he warned that the United States reserved the right to use military force if it found Iraq was building prohibited weapons.

U.S. officials say Iraq has plenty of money under U.N. oil-for-food sales but simply failed to buy and distribute adequate food supplies. Nonetheless, Saddam won the propaganda war and convinced Arabs in the region that U.N. sanctions were harming Iraqi children. This came at the same time that Israel was killing hundreds of Palestinians in the intifada that began in September, leading many Arabs to demonize America, by proxy, as anti-Muslim. Powell was even burned in effigy in the West Bank the day he traveled to Ramallah to meet Yasser Arafat. Powell decided to beat a strategic retreat on consumer goods sanctions in order to win support for more targeted oil and weapons sanctions. Arab countries that had allied with the U.S. in 1991 to drive Iraq out of Kuwait have grown more sympathetic to the suffering of Iraqi civilians in recent years.

As Powell's plane left the Middle East last week, he told reporters he had won private support from the Arab leaders for the new targeted sanctions on Iraq even though those same leaders continued in public to criticize all Iraq sanctions.

Specifically, Powell said that new Syrian leader Bashar Assad pledged to place Iraqi oil shipments through a Syrian pipeline under U.N. control. Iraq exports about 2 million barrels of oil per day through the U.N.-controlled programs, but another estimated 450,000 barrels are smuggled through Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Gulf ports. The money from those sales is unsupervised and could be diverted to weapons purchases if Saddam has a way to get them into his country. In a memoir released last year, Khidhir Hamza, who once led Iraq's nuclear weapons program and served as a senior advisor to Saddam before defecting to the United States, described how Iraqis routinely and clandestinely purchased weapon-making materials from abroad.

Powell's new Iraq policy calls for financial assistance to the frontline states such as Turkey, Jordan and Syria to cover the loss of cheap Iraqi oil and to cover the cost of customs patrols to stop the smuggling of oil out of Iraq and weapons materials into the Middle East nation.

Powell also reassured conservatives at the Wednesday hearing with a strong call for the return of U.N. weapons inspectors whom Iraq expelled in 1998. "The only way to get out of this regime of control of money is for us to be satisfied that no such weapons exist or are being developed -- the inspectors have to go back in," he told the committee. And the secretary of state beefed up verbal support for overthrowing Saddam Hussein even though he has previously been among many in Washington who are skeptical that Iraqi opposition groups, backed by a $95 million U.S. government aid program, have any chance of success against the totalitarian control Saddam wields.

"Last week I released more money for the [opposition] Iraqi National Congress so they can step up the level of their activity, and the administration is also undertaking a fuller review of other things that can be done to support opposition activities against the regime," Powell said.

Powell's efforts to reassure Republican hawks that he is not soft on Iraq were accompanied Wednesday by a sharp swing to the right on North Korea.

It was a significant shift in course from Tuesday, when Powell stated that he was satisfied with the Clinton administration's 1994 framework accord, offering North Korea twin nuclear energy plants, fuel oil and emergency food in return for the freezing of its suspected nuclear weapons program. "We do plan to engage with North Korea to pick up where President Clinton and his administration left off," Powell told reporters at the State Department. "Some promising elements were left on the table and we will be examining those elements," he said.

But Wednesday, Powell shifted to the right following a meeting with President Bush and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. He told reporters, "If there was some suggestion that imminent negotiations were about to begin, that is not the case."

North Korea has "a huge army poised on the border within artillery and rocket distance of South Korea," Powell said. "They still have weapons of mass destruction and missiles that can deliver those ... so we have to see them as a threat."

Washington is full of rumors of a conservative-liberal split between Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell. When asked about this, a senior administration official scoffed: "They're big boys. They know how to work things out." Indeed, this week Powell began to get more in line with the Republican center of gravity.

By Ben Barber

Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book, "Groundtruth: The Third World at Work at Play and at War," is to be published in 2011 by He can be reached at

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