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Western Press Review: Did Colin Powell Make His Case?

  • Don Hill

Prague, 6 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation yesterday to the UN Security Council dominates the attention of Western press commentators today.


From London, "The Times" says the Powell speech was a "withering riposte" to Iraq's denial of illegal pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. The newspaper says, "The United States has powerfully reinforced the case against Iraq."

"The Times" says: "In Iraq, the world is not up against a diminished threat lingering from the past, but confronting a dangerous serial offender, a dictator as contemptuous of human life as he is of international law. Containment has failed to prevent his building and hiding weapons that, he must be assumed to believe, would make him ultimately impossible to restrain.

"Even if it ultimately takes war, he must be stopped," the paper concludes.


"The Irish Times" agrees that, as its editorial puts it, "Mr. Colin Powell made a powerful case."

"But," the newspaper concludes, "even if his case about evasion and deceit is shown to be correct, it does not necessarily follow that military action is the best means to deal with the threat. Mr. Powell's presentation was put to the proper forum yesterday, but the United States must fully respect the UN's role in coming weeks."


Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" editorializes that Powell has made the case for war -- with UN consent if possible, without that consent if necessary. "Mr. Powell rightly reminded his audience that responsibility for dismantling Iraq's weapons of mass destruction lay primarily with Baghdad. The most persuasive part of his presentation were the recordings of Republican Guard officers, giving orders that incriminating evidence be removed before the inspectors arrived. Anyone with a knowledge of the importance that Saddam attaches to weapons of mass destruction will not be surprised by these evasions. They were a familiar feature of UN attempts to disarm him in the 1990s."

The paper adds: "[UN chief weapons inspector Hans] Blix will report again to the Security Council [on 14 February]. It will then have to decide whether to face up to its responsibilities. If it does not, America and its allies will go to war without its blessing. The risk, post-11 September, of leaving Saddam in possession of deadly weapons is not one that they are prepared to run."


"The New York Times" describes the Powell presentation as "the most powerful case to date" and "a sober, factual case." The editorial says that the selection of Powell to represent the U.S. government's position "showed a wise concern for international opinion."

The newspaper says, however: "Since [U.S. President George W.] Bush's own address to the UN last September, he has kept faith with his commitment to work through the Security Council. As the crisis builds he should make every possible effort to let the council take the lead.

"The Security Council, the American people and the rest of the world have an obligation to study Mr. Powell's presentation very closely and very seriously. Because the consequences of war are so terrible, and the cost of rebuilding Iraq so great, the United States cannot afford to confront Iraq without broad international support."


"The Washington Post" encapsulates its editorial position in a one-word headline: "Irrefutable."

The editorial says: "Whether Iraq is disarmed through the authority of the United Nations or whether the United States effectively assumes responsibility depends on how the Security Council reacts."

The newspaper continues: "Until now [governments opposing action in Iraq] have cynically argued that the inspectors must uncover evidence proving what they already know, or that it is too early to judge Saddam Hussein's cooperation. Mr. Powell's presentation stripped all credibility from that dodge."

"The Washington Post" concludes that France and other nations that propose the remedy of sending more inspectors "are setting the stage for another momentous development they claim to oppose -- the transfer of responsibility for countering the most serious threats to international security from multilateral institutions to the world's sole superpower."


"The Wall Street Journal Europe" says in an editorial twist on the cliched expression "smoking gun" that "the array of evidence that [Powell] presented amounts to a smoking fusillade of Saddam Hussein's efforts to resist and confound the UN order that he disarm."

The editorial adds, "The Powell evidence will be persuasive to anyone who is still persuadable." It concludes, "The only question remaining is whether the UN is going to have the courage of Mr. Powell's convictions."


Columnists in the French dailies "Le Figaro" and "Le Monde" place themselves in the ranks of the unconvinced.

"Le Figaro's" Yves Threard writes: "Throughout his 80-minute speech, Colin Powell tried to make his case that war is inevitable. He uttered frightening words, condemned Baghdad's rogue regime, displayed unclear photographs, and played inaudible tape recordings. And what does, in the end, public opinion know that it did not know before? Very little."

The columnist says: "Powell provided arguments the relevance of which is accessible only to experts. Do these arguments constitute irrefutable evidence, mere presumptions or a network of proofs? On top of Saddam Hussein's lies, we should probably add those of the U.S. administration. As Churchill used to say, sometimes truth is so precious it must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies. And the truth is that America, which was hurt on 11 September, is craving revenge. It needs to reassert its strength."


"Le Monde's" Jean-Marie Colombani writes: "What is at stake is the way the 'new America' intends to rule over the world with one single watchword: nothing should threaten or even challenge the United States. For that, [the U.S.] needs to keep every potential rival at a distance through a gigantic defense effort and by resorting to preventive action. Whether the international community supports that policy does not matter. What matters is that America remains convinced that there is an imminent threat."


Commentator John Vinocur writes in the "International Herald Tribune" that whether or not it has won the world's opinion, the United States has placed itself on a track toward war that will be difficult to re-route.

Vinocur says: "The weight of this presentation, in a mass of sometimes disconnected detail on the Iraqi attempt to build weapons of vast destructiveness, left Powell with his own obvious conclusions. First, that the United Nations would implode into irrelevance if it did not respond 'effectively and immediately,' he said. How long, he asked, would it be until the Security Council said, 'Enough, enough.'"

He concludes, "In these circumstances, Powell cast action as logic and inaction as the neglect of reality."


In the British daily "The Guardian," Ronan Bennett and Alice Perman, who are making a TV documentary on Al-Qaeda, write that -- like the claims of all governments -- U.S. assertions should be taken skeptically.

The commentary says: "Colin Powell certainly raised questions for the Iraqis to answer at the UN yesterday. But before anyone gets carried away, there are equally important questions to ask of U.S. intelligence. We know from experience that politicians about to go to war are not above manipulating information to heat up public opinion."

The commentary concludes: "Perhaps we cannot blame governments for doing what they do. But we can, and should, blame ourselves if we accept uncritically what they tell us. One of the very few encouraging signs in all this is that the public's appetite for the facts remains stronger than any hunger for war."


Writing in "Die Welt," commentator Jacque Schuster says that Powell did not present "striking facts." Schuster writes: "The report presented some more precise knowledge that lends a clearer form to silhouettes. No more was to be expected, even though this was disappointing for some."

The writer says nothing has changed for the German position. Schuster says that Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, presiding this month over the Security Council, "still sees no reason to join the Western allies, even if the permanent members of the Security Council agree to adopt a new resolution."


Andreas Oldag comments in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" that the Powell presentation should serve as a wake-up call for both permanent members of the Security Council and nonpermanent members Germany and Spain. "The fact that they are at loggerheads in the past week is only abetting the hawks in the Pentagon."


Richard Meng writes in the "Frankfurter Rundschau" that for Germany the issue comes as a matter of politics. "Each voting procedure in the broad gray zone is becoming more and more agonizing between those for and those against participation in a war. Now a crucial decision must be made about what is genuinely politically unavoidable."

The writer says, "A fatal automation is at stake in which Germany is getting ever more involved and will ultimately bring soldiers to the Middle East."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba and Jean-Christophe Peuch contributed to this report.)