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Editorial: Powell in the pulpit / An indictment of Iraq begs the big question

Thursday, February 06, 2003

Even Bush administration officials didn't expect Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the U.N. Security Council yesterday to produce a sudden stampede toward war on the part of skeptical nations, including some U.S. allies. And it didn't.

Still, Mr. Powell's brief added depth and texture to the administration's insistence that Iraq has not been playing fair with international weapons inspectors, a complaint the inspectors themselves have made.

As advertised, the Powell speech featured some suggestive evidence -- including intercepted Iraqi conversations -- that gave the lie to Iraqi promises to comply fully with the Security Council resolution adopted at the behest of President Bush.

That said, there was no "smoking gun" in the Powell presentation proving that Iraq continues to harbor weapons of mass destruction. And in fairness to Mr. Powell, the Bush administration consistently has stressed that the burden of proof is on Iraq to demonstrate that it has destroyed materials known to have been in its possession as long ago as the 1991 Gulf war.

As a political matter, however, it is the United States that must convince wary nations, and an ambivalent American public, that Iraq is not merely duplicitous but also dangerous. It is too early to tell whether the Powell presentation -- which, to borrow an image from the secretary, might be the tip of an iceberg of incriminating intelligence -- will produce broader support for military action.

Initial reaction from previously skittish U.S. allies was measured. Germany's foreign minister said Mr. Powell's evidence must be "examined carefully." His French counterpart insisted that the proper response to Mr. Powell's case was "an enhanced regime of inspections monitoring" and greater Iraqi cooperation. That view is not necessarily incompatible with French support for another Security Council resolution ratcheting up the threat of force if Iraq does not end its evasions.

Paradoxically, the possibility of another, tougher resolution may be strengthened by the willingness of the United States and Britain to go to war without one. Echoing Mr. Powell, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw warned that Saddam Hussein is "gambling that we will lose our nerve rather than enforce our will."

Like most Americans, we would like to think there is a middle course between precipitous military action with its loss of life and other, imponderable consequences and an endless appeasement of Iraqi obstructionism. But, if nothing else, Mr. Powell made it clear yesterday that if Iraq is not held to greater account by the United Nations, this country and Britain are prepared to do battle, and soon.

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