The single most remarkable passage in Bob Woodward's "Bush at War" has, to my knowledge, gone unremarked. In early August 2002, Colin Powell decides that the Iraq hawks have gotten to the president, and that he has not weighed in enough to restrain them. He feels remorse:
"During the Gulf War, when he had been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell had played the role of reluctant warrior, arguing to the first President Bush, perhaps too mildly [emphasis added], that containing Iraq might work, that war might not be necessary. But as the principal military adviser, he hadn't pressed his arguments that forcefully because they were less military than political."
Now, it is well known that Powell had been against the Gulf War and for "containment." What was not known was that, if Woodward is to be believed, Powell to this day still believes that sanctions were the right course and that he should have pushed harder for them.
This is astonishing. After a decade of bitter experience we know that sanctions are utterly useless in dealing with Saddam Hussein. If he did not give up his weapons programs in response to the most stringent sanctions imposed after defeat and humiliation in war, imagine how little effect sanctions would have had if he had been left in control not just of Kuwait and all its oil but of all his military assets as well.
Advocating the sanctions Band-Aid 12 years ago can be forgiven. But after what we have learned since then, how can one still think that would have been the better policy? Even Richard Gephardt admits that in retrospect the Democrats' (and Powell's) advocacy of sanctions was wrong. Sanctions would have left Kuwait under Hussein and left Hussein in possession of a nuclear program that was just months away from success. Only the Gulf War prevented Iraq from becoming a nuclear power.
Powell regrets not having prevented the war that prevented that outcome? This places Powell's actions in the current Iraq crisis in a new light. In August 2002 he persuaded the president to go to the United Nations. The pitfalls of such a course were obvious. International support is lovely, but key members of the Security Council have long undermined any serious effort to disarm Hussein and have publicly opposed the president's policy of regime change.
Did Powell go to the United Nations to garner support for the president's policy? Or did he go to undermine that policy and implement instead the preferred Powell policy of "containment" -- leaving Hussein in place -- by setting up an endless inspection process that keeps America at bay?
Which is it? We don't know. But if it was Powell's intention to advance policy rather than thwart Bush's policy, then it is incumbent upon him to help the president out of the U.N. inspections box Powell created.
It is impossible to find weapons of mass destruction in an uncooperative country. Even strong, determined inspectors will fail. Look: The United States was attacked with anthrax -- and more than a year later we still can't find the stuff, even with the cooperation of the entire national government and every law enforcement agency in sight. How do you expect to find anthrax in a country in which the authorities are hiding it?
Chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix is neither strong nor determined. He was handpicked by France and Russia in 2000 for precisely that reason. (When it was suggested to an administration official that Blix was Inspector Clouseau, he protested that this was unfair: "Clouseau was trying to find stuff.") Everyone knows that the only way to find weapons is to question Iraqi scientists under conditions of protective asylum outside Iraq. Yet Blix has contemptuously dismissed this option as running "an abduction agency."
Instead, he is running a farce. President Bush has been outspoken in expressing skepticism about the inspection process. But the president should not be out front taking the public relations hit for being openly skeptical. This is the job of the secretary of state. It is the job of the man who set up the Blix inspection game in the first place.
On Jan. 27 Blix will present his findings to the Security Council. They will be equivocal. He already told the Security Council yesterday that he found no smoking gun. (Surprise!) Blix's report will call for endless more inspections and will be seized upon by defenders of the status quo on the Security Council to deny the legitimacy of American military action. It will then be Powell's duty to discount the Blix charade -- to point out, for example, that Blix has not taken a single Iraqi scientist out of the country for interrogation free from Iraqi coercion -- and to explain why America cannot be deterred by it.
Or is charade Powell's intention, the way to vindicate his misgivings about Gulf War I and to ensure that Saddam Hussein's regime remains merely contained -- and intact?