How convincing was Powell?

Sandra Mackey, Peter Bergen, Khidir Hamza, Todd Gitlin and other experts on Iraq, al-Qaida and weapons inspections evaluate the secretary of state's U.N. presentation.

Published February 6, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

On Wednesday morning, Secretary of State Colin Powell made the most detailed case yet that Saddam Hussein was flouting the will of the United Nations, hiding his chemical and biological weapons and cooperating with al-Qaida.

"Clearly, Saddam will stop at nothing until something stops him," Powell told a skeptical U.N. Security Council, calling the evidence the U.S. has assembled "irrefutable and undeniable."

But is it? Salon asked a panel of experts on Iraq, disarmament and Middle Eastern policy to evaluate Powell's case to the U.N.

Sandra Mackey, author of "The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein"

I wasn't quite sure who his audience was -- whether it was the international community or whether it was aimed at American domestic opinion. I felt like it was more a recitation of facts rather than a fire in the belly kind of speech. Definitely, when he finished up with the part on links to international terrorism, he was targeting the American public.

It's been a real stretch all along to tie Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden together and that speech made the most deliberate reach to bring together rumor, innuendo, facts and so forth to really make that argument. It wasn't terribly effective because, as he said, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein do not have similar goals. One's a secularist and one's an Islamist and they're rivals for the same constituencies. Then, when he said that hatred could overcome those things -- that was again trying to make that argument that the link was there. But I didn't think it was terribly effective.

Saddam is a very devious character and I'm certainly not one to say that he wouldn't do anything like [al Qaida-like terrorist activities]. But Saddam is the personality type that he can't get himself involved in anything that he cannot control. He knows as well as anybody else that he cannot control a network of terrorist cells that work on their own. I have a very hard time accepting the argument that Saddam Hussein is going to give weapons to al-Qaida simply because he can't guarantee that he can control it. And the terrorism that Saddam has been involved in has been against his domestic enemies, different from al-Qaida.

I also thought that Powell's attempt to link up the connection between Hussein and Hamas was very detrimental to U.S. interests in the Middle East, because what we have got to do if we're going to go to war with Iraq is deal with the Palestinian issue. That was definitely aimed at American public opinion. You cannot separate the issue of Iraq from the issue of the Palestinian question. It's like that issue doesn't exist. That's what this administration should have done first: say that we're going to deal with the Palestinian issue and then deal with Saddam Hussein. But they're not.

Powell did a credible job in really laying out the fact that Saddam Hussein does have ambitions in that area that would certainly be enormously enhanced by possessing of weapons of mass destruction. It was bolstering the contention of the administration that the longer you wait the harder he will be to deal with. My argument with the administration is not so much about what they're saying about Saddam being a menace to the region. My argument is that the way they have handled this whole approach to Iraq has really turned into an ideological battle in which the U.S. follows unilateralism in what really is a multilateral world. We've been running a multilateral foreign policy since the Second World War. It's even more necessary now to run a multilateral foreign policy but yet the administration is going off course.

It may not happen immediately --[that a war on Iraq will inflame the region] -- but to the region it looks like were launching a war against Iraq in order to control oil and protect Israel. Once we get bogged down in Iraq the more that perception will be strengthened.

I think the inspectors have been effective. As long as they're in there then you can at least be on the ground. The chemical and biological weapons are a concern but a nuclear potential changes the strategic balance. That's really the important thing. That's the one thing they really could pick up regardless of what Hussein's doing because it's much more difficult to hide nuclear weapons.

Richard Murphy, assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian Affairs under President Reagan and a former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and the Philippines. He's currently a senior fellow in Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

He made the case to the converted, he may have made it to the wavering, but he didn't budge those who have been critical from the beginning -- France, China and Russia.

Clearly, though, there's still room for agreement. While they all insist they want more time for inspections and are waiting to hear from Blix on the 14th, I think that Powell has given them something to stand on that they didn't have before, to the extent that they care about their own population's [anti-war sentiment] and the position their own respective leaders have talked themselves into. Chirac has put himself into a rather tight corner. For him to regain any maneuverability he needs some time to think about the evidence presented. Perhaps Powell's speech and Blix's next appearance taken altogether will start to move the French position. Powell did use the word "irrelevant" in speaking about the need for the council to shoulder responsibilities. That's a fairly powerful incentive for both France and Russia.

The specifics he gave certainly were new -- the mobile vans for chemical and biological weapons, the communications intercepts and satellite photography. I thought it was a very effective presentation. There was nothing new about al-Qaida, but he was very careful to stay on grounds he could defend against any challenge. He didn't link the Saddam regime with 9/11 and he didn't bring up the story of Mohammed Atta meeting in Prague with a representative of Baghdad. His comment about the understanding reached between Baghdad and al-Qaida not to attack each other was the least convincing, because there was no audio intercept, nothing you could photograph. That evidence is what made it such a strong presentation on chemical and biological weapons paraphernalia. I don't think the specifics he had left much room for spinning, frankly.

Khidir Hamza, Iraq's former director of nuclear weaponization and coauthor with Jeff Stein of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Terrifying Inside Story of the Iraqi Nuclear and Biological Weapons Agenda"

He made a tremendous case. Powell was at his best today. He is becoming the real warrior of the administration. Today his speech and his presentation is really a powerful argument for not even continuing with inspections. What he's saying today is it is useless to go on with inspections, Saddam will defeat any inspections you can devise. That was the whole gist of his speech.

Many people are very convinced by his speech, but there are some who are unconvincible. I doubt if he'll convince the French no matter what he does. What I think he did today is make the American public much more aware of the problem. He put so much detail and threw in so much classified information. He jeopardized sources and methods, but it was worth it. We are going to war and we want as many people with us as possible. The American government has decided it's worth the risk, even if no one in Iraq will talk on cellphones now. The guy who talked on the phone is dead by now.

Most of the arguments Powell made today have been around in the Iraqi opposition for a long time. The defectors he's talking about came through the Iraqi opposition. I myself came in through the Iraqi National Congress. So the Iraqi opposition has a first-hand view. For them, it's a happy day. It's liberation. This proves what they've been saying all these years, with nobody hearing them.

Jonathan B. Tucker, a former United Nations biological weapons inspector in Iraq (1995), is currently on leave from Monterey Institute of International Studies as a visiting senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace. His last book was "Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox."

He laid out a lot of evidence that cumulatively made a strong case that Iraq is not cooperating fully with the inspection process but I don't think he made the case that Iraq poses an imminent threat that would warrant a preemptive war and regime change.

Another troubling subtext of the presentation was that the U.S. government possessed intelligence -- for example, the satellite images of decontamination trucks carting away prohibited materials from weapons sites -- that would have been of great value to the inspectors had it been made available. I noticed that Hans Blix often appeared extremely angry and I think that might have been the reason -- not only that Iraq was pulling the wool over his eyes, but that the U.S. had actionable intelligence while the inspectors were in the country and did not make it available. I think this was because there was resistance from the intelligence community to declassify information and strong elements of the administration that did not want inspections to succeed -- the hawks who saw the inspections as a sideshow.

Saddam appears to have limited numbers of Scud missiles and perhaps some unmanned aerial vehicles that could disseminate agents but they are short range systems that do not pose a direct threat to the U.S. They pose threats to his neighbors. If Saddam were to attack Israel then he would probably face nuclear retaliation. He knows his fate would be sealed.

The irony is that the CIA did an assessment last October in which it assessed that the most likely circumstances under which Saddam would provide weapons to terrorists is if we invade. The main threat to the U.S. is through terrorist proxies but it doesn't seem likely he would do that. I see all this more as a challenge to the authority of the Security Council than to U.S. security. If the U.S. were to go it alone, we would make the Security Council irrelevant and eliminate its effectiveness with dealing with international conflict. If we set the example that we can go to war preemptively, it's a prescription for chaos and anarchy.

Peter Bergen, author of "Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden"

I was more or less convinced [by what Powell said about an al-Qaida presence in Iraq], but there wasn't a vast amount of new material. We knew [al-Qaida leader Abu Musab] Zarqawi had been implicated in the killing of [U.S. diplomat] Lawrence Foley. It doesn't change my general feeling that Zarqawi was not in division A of al-Qaida. He's still in division B. He's not on the FBI's most wanted list. To make him out to be a major figure is sort of misleading.

There were two new things. One was the suggestion that Zarqawi has a network of lieutenants implicated in these rashes of attempted chemical weapons attacks from England to Spain. And certainly it would be new if there were two dozen al-Qaida affiliates in Baghdad, but affiliates is a kind of weasel word. It can mean lots of different things.

Another substantive thing about the presentation is how this intelligence is gathered. The whole presentation was obviously supported by telephone intercepts and satellite pictures. That was not the case in the al-Qaida section. You had to trust what he said about intelligence sources. But he's a fairly credible figure. Do the thought experiment where Dick Cheney was presenting it; obviously Powell was the right person to do this presentation.

As for the information that Iraqi agents made a nonaggression pact with Osama bin Laden, I'm not entirely sure what that means. It seems to undercut one of their arguments. Why would they be signing a nonaggression agreement if they were close friends? You don't sign nonaggression pacts with people you're doing business with. It cuts both ways.

One of the things that did leap out at me was what Powell said about how Iraqis were linked to terrorism throughout the '90s. The State Department's own reports sabotage the view that Iraq is involved in anti-Western terrorism. Every year the U.S. State Department releases an authoritative survey of global terrorism. According to its 2000 report: Iraq "has not attempted an anti-western attack since its failed attempt to assassinate former President Bush in 1993 in Kuwait". Even after Sept. 11 the heaviest charge made in the state department's subsequent report was pretty mild: "Iraq was the only Arab-Muslim country that did not condemn the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States." So this stuff is of very recent vintage.

Judith Kipper, Middle East specialist affiliated with the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

I think the presentation of Powell was to be admired. He was eloquent and elegant and he was very, very respectful of the Security Council and the inspections process. As far as the evidence that he presented, I think it's of course interesting, but I don't believe it's compelling. Everyone knows that the Iraqi regime does have weapons of mass destruction. The intercepts and the photographs are somewhat tantalizing, but they're not really new. I don't think anyone -- including the Security Council members -- assumed that Iraq would do provide anything more than minimal cooperation, or that they would simply hand these things over in the way that the presentation seemed to imply.

On the terrorist part of it, I think that he raises more questions than are answered. If there is a camp in northeast Iraq that's training al-Qaida, that's a Kurdish area. The U.S. has good relations with the Kurds. The U.S. is bombing almost every day in the no-fly zone, so why hasn't that camp been eliminated? I don't know the answer to that. If there is a camp of Islamic radicals, how come for even 24 hours after we knew it existed it was allowed to remain there? There's no reason they couldn't go to that area for a special operation or why wouldn't we get cooperation with the Kurds to eliminate that installation. I think the White House has been determined from the beginning to link what has been circumstantial evidence of contacts between Iraqis and al-Qaida and other groups -- the administration is determined to make it more than what it really is.

Have people come to Iraq for medical or education reasons, to get medical care or to learn to do certain things? Well, yes. But have they come to learn to do chemical warfare? Or biological weapons? I have seen no evidence of that ... though I have no access to secret information. Is there operational cooperation, or did Iraq have knowledge of al-Qaida operations, especially Sept. 11? I don't think that case has been made.

Powell's presentation was effective in that it raised very specific questions that have to be addressed by the international community. But that doesn't mean that it's effective in achieving the intentions the administration had for this speech. For example, France or someone else might come and say that we need to provide more intelligence data to the weapons inspectors and not provide it to the public so that they can catch the Iraqis red-handed -- and that to do that, the inspectors need more time.

Mansour Farhang was revolutionary Iran's first ambassador to the United Nations and worked as a mediator during the early months of the Iran-Iraq war. He is a professor of international relations and Middle Eastern politics at Bennington College.

He made a very compelling case, but it was a political speech. As a political speech I think it was as effective as it could be, but I really never had any doubt about the truth of what he had to say. I don't think anybody in the Security Council including the Iraqi delegate could question the truth of what he was saying. The Iraqi delegate had to deny it, but rest of the people didn't really question the substance of what he said.

But at the end he said we want disarmament or we want regime change, and there's no doubt that the word disarmament as it applies to U.S. policy towards Iraq is a euphemism for regime change. That's the issue. People are fearful of the consequences. Many of the people who oppose the war believe Saddam could be kept in a box and continually squeezed if the inspectors will remain stationed in Iraq. It's much more than containment. They will continue to diminish his capacity and at some point he will die or be overthrown.

If there was one thing I was thinking of, it's that there's a lot of skepticism about American motives, particularly in the Middle East, and maybe this is just idealistic thinking, but I think Powell could have made his presentation dramatically more credible if he made at least a veiled reference to past U.S. support for Saddam Hussein, and expressed regret. After all, when he tried to explain the nature of the regime and spoke about Saddam using chemical weapons, he went back to a period in Saddam's rule when he was a de facto American ally. People in the region know this, and when they know this and Powell makes absolutely no reference to it, it makes them question his integrity.

The al-Qaida connection was largely circumstantial. In my own opinion, they definitely have a community of interest and definitely the Muslims fighting the Kurds in Northern Iraq are connected to Saddam and in some way connected to al-Qaida. I believe what he said. I don't think there is any question about all of these connections.

But the real issue is whether war is the only way to get rid of Saddam. In the case of war, people in the region are concerned that once again hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are going to be decimated. The concern is whether it is necessary to punish the desperate people of Iraq one more time.

It's virtually certain that an overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people support regime change. They want him gone, they want him destroyed, they want him dead. But they don't want to be refugees and they don't want to be bombed. I read in an Iranian newspaper that the Iraqi regime, over the last three or four weeks, has removed a lot of people close to the border with Iran and perhaps has planted a lot of mines. If this is the case, it means the many Iraqis who are going to cross the border to go to Iran will have to go over mines.

The Iranian government has already established 20 refugee camps less than 20 yards over the border. Last time, altogether a million Iraqis crossed the border and 200,000 remained in Iran. Iran wants to avoid all that.

Nothing Powell said could have changed my view and the view of the Middle East. The only country he could sway is France, because France is using a legalistic argument, at least in public. Every time they make a statement they refer to evidence. If the United States has the right kind of evidence, that could at least put an end to the public position of France. It's the only country where a legalistic argument and evidence could make a difference. With respect to China and Russia, evidence has nothing to do with it.

Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism, Columbia University

Powell produced a lot of evidence before the United Nations today. The first question is, What does it demonstrate? The second is, What is to be done about it?

Without my own fleet of satellites, my own spy inspectorate, my own telephone intercepts, how can I -- how can any of us? -- confirm the evidence of Iraqi evasion and lying that Powell brought forth? Leave that built-in problem aside, and let's assess Powell's argument as we would try to assess any fact-based statement any official anywhere makes in public. On its face, much of what Powell offered seems plausible. It would come as no surprise that Saddam Hussein cheats, and that his command hierarchy carries out his orders to cheat.

Powell's evidence of cheating involves principally chemical and biological weapons, and longer-range missiles. So let's stipulate that in these respects Saddam Hussein is -- continues to be -- in material breach of Security Council Resolution 1441.

About nuclear weapons, the evidence is more blurry. Powell brought up the now-famous aluminum tubes, about which he made two strong and (to me) new points: 1) They're machined to a very high standard, higher than if they were simply intended for rocket use. 2) They've improved over their predecessors. He claimed further 3) that Iraq is trying to acquire other equipment useful for a uranium enrichment gas centrifuge process. And 4) that Saddam Hussein regularly exhorts his nuclear sciences "and praises their progress." All this suggests that Saddam Hussein is in breach of 1441 in the nuclear area as well.

One wonders, however, on the subject of nuclear weapons, why Powell didn't bring up Bush's claim (in his State of the Union address) that British intelligence demonstrates that Saddam Hussein has been trying to buy uranium in Africa. Could it be that that evidence isn't so hot? And if so, would closer scrutiny also undermine some of items 1-4 above?

In any event, Saddam has committed material breaches, yes, without doubt. But the terrifically real, consequential, unavoidable question is: Do they make war wise?

If Saddam Hussein could be deterred from the use of chemical and biological weapons in 1991, why can't he be deterred now?

Doesn't it remain the case that the greatest danger of Saddam using chemical or biological weapons comes in reaction to a U.S. attack, whether against attacking soldiers or against Israel?

As for nuclear -- the serious threat to the United States itself -- if U.S. intelligence knows which firms Iraq was negotiating with in 1999-2000 (items 3-4), why can't the U.S. stop such deals without paying the awful price of war? And if the tubes can't smoke without uranium, isn't this an argument for continuing the inspections and finding them?

Finally, as for the Saddam-Qaida links, even if Powell is correct -- and there is room for multiple interpretation -- they concern biological and chemical weapons that, while certainly ugly, do not rise (or fall) to the level of mass destruction.

So the evidence Powell brought forward is considerable, but it is evidence that Saddam Hussein has violated 1441, not evidence that the costs of war are worth paying.

Samer Shehata, acting director of Arab studies programs, Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

There is no doubt that Colin Powell's speech today at the Security Council was quite impressive ... in its presentation. But no nation will be influenced by Powell's remarks. There was no "smoking gun." Not one permanent member of the Security Council [the U.K., France, Russia, China and of course the U.S.] will change its position on the question of using force against Iraq to comply with Security Council Resolution 1441. The question for Americans is different, however. The question should not be "is Iraq complying fully with Resolution 1441" or "how many 'material breaches' of that resolution have occurred in the last two months." This is about war, the most serious decision a nation can face. The question must be: is there an imminent threat to the citizens of the United States? Does Iraq pose an immediate danger to us? The answer to this question is clearly NO.

No one doubts Saddam Hussein's record on human rights. No one doubts the brutality of the Iraqi regime -- a regime, incidentally, that received massive support from the United States in the 1980s -- including billions of dollars in agricultural aid, intelligence support in Iraq's eight-year war against Iran (and, more specifically, satellite photos of Iranian troop positions with the full knowledge that Iraq would use chemical weapons against those troops -- chemical weapons which were obtained through U.S. companies with the tacit approval of several U.S. administrations.) Let's also not forget that the present secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, after all, traveled to Baghdad and shook Saddam's hand on Dec. 20, 1983!

But getting back to Colin Powell's speech: One could go through Powell's allegations one by one and find serious fault with many of them. For example, the high-strength aluminum tubes which Powell claimed Iraq imported for use in their nuclear weapons program (incidentally, Vice President Cheney, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and President Bush made the same claim earlier) were in fact "not suitable" for uranium enrichment according to the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA]. In fact, the IAEA reported that the tubes were most likely for ordinary artillery rockets, consistent with Iraq's claim. This was widely reported including in an article entitled "U.S. Claim on Iraqi Nuclear Program Is Called Into Question" which appeared in the Washington Post on Jan. 23.

Second, satellite photos of building construction -- and the claim that the photos depict a "liquid engine test facility" -- do not prove anything. Recently the United States shared information with weapons inspectors about a building that the U.S. claimed could be a hiding place for one of Iraq's unaccounted for Scud missiles and it turned out to be a chicken farm outside of Baghdad!

This is pretty weak evidence and it makes one wonder -- this is the best the Bush administration and the CIA have in their case that Iraq has a working nuclear weapons development program? This is the best evidence this administration has that we should send young American men and women thousands of miles away and put them in harm's way? I for one am not convinced.

Finally, I agree with some of the remarks made by France's Foreign Minister Dominque de Villepin. The U.N. inspections program (UNMOVIC) is working well on the ground and should be strengthened. If more inspectors are needed, then send them. If more resources need to be allocated, then allocate them. And whatever action is taken, it should come under the auspices of the United Nations. The U.S. should not act unilaterally (or even with a small coalition) or outside the direction of the U.N.

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Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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