Joe Conason's Journal

Will Colin Powell make the case for war or -- as some reports allege -- will he punt?

Published February 3, 2003 7:53PM (EST)

War now, proof later
This morning I heard the ultimate justification for war articulated by an "expert on Anglo-American security policy" at the Heritage Foundation on the "Brian Lehrer Show" on WNYC, my superb local NPR station. It's certainly the most brilliant argument I've heard so far.

"The full extent of the ties between Iraq and al-Qaida will only be revealed," promised Dr. Nile Gardiner, "once Iraq has been liberated by Allied forces." The same goes for weapons of mass destruction and the extent of human rights violations by the Baghdad regime.

In other words, the case in favor of going to war cannot be fully proved until after the war is over. This is an unanswerable assertion, at least for the moment. It's also the kind of assertion that would only be made by someone with a fairly casual attitude toward sending soldiers in harm's way, let alone raining ordnance on thousands of innocent civilians. Incidentally, the Heritage expert also promises that if he and his cronies have their way, the war in Iraq will merely be "the first of a number of potential conflicts to be fought in the early part of the 21st century."

Presumably, the secretary of state will offer a more convincing brief when he unveils intelligence data about Iraq on Wednesday. Sunday's New York Times carried an important story about efforts to spin intelligence concerning al-Qaida and other matters by top administration officials (which have been causing the same kind of dissension within the CIA and FBI that the drive to war has fomented among the professional military at the Pentagon). Analysts who have been examining the evidence about al-Qaida and the Sept. 11 attacks are reportedly appalled to hear that their superiors are capitulating to this politicization and distortion of their work.

The latest red herring is Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, an alleged aide to Osama (the unmentionable) bin Laden, who is alleged to be lurking with the al Ansar Islamists in northern Iraq and who is also alleged to have ordered the assassination of an American diplomat in Jordan. This goon is further alleged to have received medical treatment in Baghdad and to maintain connections with Iraqi officials. It will be interesting to hear how Powell presents this information  how can he avoid uttering the name of bin Laden? -- but it doesn't sound like a casus belli. A skeptical view of the Zarqawi connection appeared in Sunday's London Observer.

(I should repeat here what I said on "Hardball" last week: If I saw evidence of direct Iraqi involvement in Sept. 11, I would support an immediate declaration of war by Congress with an invasion at the earliest possible date. That wouldn't be preventive or preemptive war, of course, but an unavoidable response to aggression against the United States. )

If this Zarqawi is an al-Qaida agent working with al Ansar in northern Iraq, why not go after them? That doesn't require an invasion of Iraq or disruption of the inspection regime, because the zone where Ansar operates is outside of Baghdad's control.

In a preview of Colin Powell's remarks, the Times quoted an unnamed administration official to the effect that the secretary "might not present the administration's most aggressive case against Iraq when he speaks to the United Nations, leaving such a final definitive statement to the president in some future address."

The same official said: "You won't see Powell swing for the fences. It will not be the end-all speech. The president will do that. The president has to lay it out in a more detailed way."

That sounds like a punt. Didn't the president tell us in his State of the Union speech that Powell would prove the case on Feb. 5? Will Powell punt back to Bush? And then, on the eve of the invasion, the president can echo the guy from Heritage -- and promise to show us the proof after the allies capture Baghdad.

Magnificent seven
The tragedy of Saturday's Columbia explosion demands discussion of many things, from the adequacy of NASA's budget to the virtues of diversity and the purposes of human existence. For me, however, the sadness is still overwhelming. In my view, there have always been ample reasons for the United States and the world to explore space. Now there are seven more.

[11:52 a.m. PST, Feb. 3, 2003]

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