Colin Powell did more than present the world with a convincing and detailed X-ray of Iraq's secret weapons and terrorism programs yesterday. He also exposed the enduring bad faith of several key members of the U.N. Security Council when it comes to Iraq and its "web of lies," in Powell's phrase.
China's foreign minister set an intellectually corrupt tone that pervaded other formal reactions to Powell's startling 90-plus minutes of inconvenient truths. Tang Jiaxuan listened impassively and then read every word of his "response" from a statement that had obviously been prepared long before Powell spoke. He seemed intent on undercutting the U.S. case that the Iraqis have systematically sabotaged the inspectors while promising cooperation.
No evidence that Powell could have offered in New York would have altered China's view at this meeting. Beijing was mesmerized by political considerations seemingly more important than the secretary of state's masterful indictment, which displayed sensitive U.S. intelligence and logic that I found irrefutable.
The none-so-blind award of the session was claimed by Russia's Igor Ivanov, a recovering Soviet apparatchik. Powell, no stranger to conducting high-powered briefings, deftly walked the council through the Iraqi maze of obstruction. He documented how Saddam Hussein's "higher committee for monitoring the inspections teams" had beaten the inspections game by systematically hiding and destroying evidence at specific sites Powell named.
The Russian response? Turn that same evidence over to the inspectors (bugged and spied upon by the Iraqis) and send them back to the same sites. When they still find nothing, Ivanov will presumably nominate Saddam Hussein for the Nobel Peace Prize.
But this does not mean that Powell should have skipped going to the Security Council or that President Bush's determination will not gradually move many of the doubters. Powell completed the case that Bush began with his Sept. 12 U.N. speech: If war comes, it will come because of the weakness and self-willed blindness of a Security Council that will go down in history as having destroyed the United Nations' credibility and effectiveness.
Consider the clever statement by Dominique de Villepin, who began with the same obstructionist rhetoric that France has been putting out for several weeks. But he then reestablished the more balanced approach Paris had previously pursued. The minister demanded immediate Iraqi cooperation as a condition for his consciously meaningless plan of greatly expanded inspections. Even the French lack the courage of their cynicism when the United States makes it clear that there is no going back.
Powell did just that yesterday. Here was the administration's leading dove on Iraq releasing communications intercepts, highly secret "product" from interrogations of Iraqi defectors and terrorist prisoners, and detailed intelligence interpretations of satellite photos. Sitting behind him to put a visible stamp of approval on every word Powell spoke was the director of central intelligence, George Tenet.
Powell and the CIA have come in for criticism in this column over the past two years for seeming to misjudge the dangers of Saddam Hussein's drive for weapons of mass destruction and Iraq's support for international terrorism and its links to al Qaeda in particular. But the secretary and the spies assembled as powerful a case as the most exacting critic could expect and backed it up impressively yesterday.
Speaking as "an old trooper," the ex-general showed, through technical detail, the illogic of Iraq's protestations that it has been importing aluminum tubing for short-range rockets and not for nuclear weapons. Nobody uses this kind of tubing for rockets, Powell said convincingly. He then made the obvious point that so many are intent on rushing past: In any event, the act of importing this specific tubing -- for any purpose whatever -- is illegal and further proof of Iraq's deliberate and material breach of sanctions and U.N. resolutions. How is that not a smoking gun?
The foreign ministers, U.N. senior officials and others in the Security Council chamber yesterday did not get there by being dummies. They already knew the grand outline of the evils and dangers that Powell was describing in compelling detail. They have been following the familiar pattern of reasoning backward -- of determining the political outcome they desire first and then choosing or ignoring the facts that fit that outcome.
Powell has made that callous approach much more difficult for them and for all others who have claimed not to see the threat that Saddam Hussein and his terrorist henchmen have become to international order, the United Nations and American citizens.
To continue to say that the Bush administration has not made its case, you must now believe that Colin Powell lied in the most serious statement he will ever make, or was taken in by manufactured evidence. I don't believe that. Today, neither should you.