The Inevitable War?

Predictably, warmongers (stand up and take a bow, William Safire!) saw clinching evidence of Iraqi guilt in Colin Powell's performance in the packed Security Council chamber. Sadly, some peace activists seem to have seen equally clinching evidence of Iraqi innocence in Ambassador Al-Douri's rebuttal.

Perhaps the greatest indication of wishful thinking were several reports from antiwar types claiming that Hans Blix had somehow given the lie to Powell by saying that there was no evidence of mobile biological weapons labs of the type that the Secretary of State later alleged, with pictures and diagrams, were on the roads of Iraq. In fact, he said that they had not found evidence of them, while making it plain that he did think the Iraqis were hiding facilities.

Powell would indeed have made a much more convincing case if he had produced some of his un-named informants. But although American editors do not like anonymous sources -- unless they are government sources in which case it's OK, no matter how insubstantial their testimony -- they will not quibble when the administration cites them.

Even so, it would be foolishly reckless to anchor any case against the war with an assertion of Iraqi innocence, and members of the Security Council did not fall into that trap. You have to know diplomacy to hear what was being said. Without attacking Powell or his presentation in any way, envoy after envoy urged "all" nations that have useful information to share it with the Inspectors right way. Which, being interpreted, means, "Why the hell have you been sitting on this stuff and not passing it on to Blix?"

Equally politely, they totally ignored the least convincing part of Powell's presentation, the diagramming of alleged links between Iraq and Al Qaeda, assuming that it was not meant for sophisticated types like foreign diplomats but rather was aimed at the gullible unwashed at home in the U.S. -- TV anchor people and columnists like Safire. They overlooked it in the genteel way one does by not drawing attention to a respected figure breaking wind in public.

In fact his presentation reminded me of the game that was popular a few years ago about tracing links in movies to Kevin Bacon. I have shaken hands with Tony Benn, Tony Blair, Fidel Castro and Bill Clinton (who hasn't, with Clinton, come to think of it?) and Tony Benn has shaken hands with Saddam Hussein, so Clinton supports Saddam Hussein and Blair is a deep cover Ba'athist. All Q.E.D.

There has been a tendency to overlook the purpose of Powell's speech. Most members of the Council do not need persuading that Saddam and his minions are up to all sorts of tricks. But they do need convincing that war is the appropriate response. And "appropriate" is as flexible in its meaning as Bill Clinton's "is."

Powell's message was that the U.S. has decided on war, come what may. It would like the UN to support it, but Washington is prepared to go ahead anyway, even if it risks ripping up the UN Charter and the whole Post-World War II body of international law. Instead of saying "copy" the other diplomats acknowledged the message obliquely by stressing the need for Council unity and for a UN framework for any action.

And then the supposed anti-war brigade in the Council prepared their way for accommodation with Washington by discretely drawing their own line in the sand: Speaker after speaker stressed the need for Iraqi cooperation on the U2 overflights and on private interviews with Iraqi scientists when Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei go to Baghdad this weekend. While Saddam Hussein may let the U2's fly, there is no way he is going to allow his scientists to talk.

Powell's presentation alleged that Saddam Hussein threatened death to any scientist who divulged information and that anyone of them who left the country for an interview would be treated as a spy. (Spies are not generally treated well in Iraq.) Indeed, if anything, Powell probably understated the case. One of the secrets of Ba'ath power is that families of suspects suffer as well.

If Iraq allows private interviews or flights outside the country, then the game is afoot, as Sherlock Homes used to say. If he doesn't, then he provides the perfect excuse for the waverers in the Security Council to give Bush and Powell what they would like, even as the White House disclaims the need for it, which is a resolution precipitating the serious consequences that all other resolutions have threatened.

Most of them would, in Lyndon Johnson's immortal phrase, rather have the U.S. inside the tent pissing on Iraq rather than outside, washing away the UN tent in the flood. On St. Valentine's day next week, Blix and ElBaradei return to the Council to report on their Baghdad trip, we should not be too surprised to see signs of kissing and making up with Bush from Old Europe. A Valentine card with a resolution.

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