In estimating the impact of Colin Powell's U.N. presentation on persons who believe that there is no justification for a military response to Iraq's behavior, remember the human capacity for willful suspension of disbelief. Remember this: People determined to believe that a vast conspiracy assassinated President Kennedy believe that the absence of evidence of the conspiracy proves the vastness and cleverness of the conspiracy.
People committed to a particular conclusion will get to it and will stay there. So the facts that Powell deployed, and the pattern they form, will not persuade people determined to be unpersuaded. But Powell's presentation, its power enhanced by his avoidance of histrionics, will change all minds open to evidence.
Thus it will justify disregarding the presumptively close-minded people who persist in denying . . . what? What are people denying who still deny the need for force? That Iraq has weapons of mass destruction? Or that Iraq is resisting the inspections? No, they are denying only that force is needed. They say an enhanced presence of inspectors will paralyze Iraq's weapons programs.
Speaking, as we are, primarily of the French government, its oleaginous foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, addressed the Security Council after Powell. After some initial circumlocutions, the opacity of which could not conceal their offensiveness, de Villepin may have begun exercising the skill France has often honed since 1870 -- that of retreating, this time into incoherence.
After dismissing Powell's photographs and voice intercepts as "information, indications, questions, which deserve further exploration," de Villepin declared: "It will be up to the inspectors to assess the facts as is stated in Resolution 1441." Such cheek. De Villepin put Powell through torturous word-by-word negotiation of 1441 and knows that it does not contain what he, de Villepin, now purports to find in it. It does not vest in Hans Blix's minions the sovereign power to declare for the United Nations whether Iraq is in material breach.
Perhaps de Villepin's statement lost some clarity in translation. More likely, it was incoherent because his position is.
He said "the disarmament of Iraq" is "a clear objective which we cannot compromise." He said inspections require Iraq's "active cooperation." Then, although Powell's evidence was still fresh in the minds of the Security Council members, de Villepin said "this cooperation still contains some gray areas." Gray, indeed.
Three paragraphs after saying the inspections "are working," de Villepin said the inspectors have encountered "real difficulties." Three paragraphs later, insincerity producing stammering, he said, "Our evidence suggests -- the evidence suggests that there are significant stocks -- there is the possible possession of significant stocks of anthrax and botulism toxins and the possible -- possibly a production capacity today." But in the next paragraph he said, so what? "The absence of long-range delivery systems reduces the potential threat of these weapons" -- as though ballistic missiles are necessary.
Concluding with cascading billows of fog about "a collective demarche of responsibility by the international community," de Villepin proposed using "some unused space in Resolution 1441" by "decisive reinforcement" of the inspections, tripling the number of inspectors (to all of 300 for an uncooperative nation the size of California) and opening regional offices. In a flourish that defies satire, de Villepin called for Iraq to pass "legislation" prohibiting itself from manufacturing prohibited weapons.
De Villepin having deflated the French reputation for deft diplomacy, we are left with the stark fact that Iraq is demonstrating contempt for U.N. Resolution 1441 and for the United Nations itself. If the United Nations' supine response is to prolong the inspection charade in a futile attempt to stymie U.S. force, the United Nations will demonstrate contempt for 1441 and hence for its own pretense of moral authority and practical utility.
It is probable that President Bush decided at least a year ago that U.S. force would be necessary, and would be used, for regime change in Iraq, with or without U.N. approval. The United Nations was warned by the president in last month's State of the Union address: "The course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others."
But the president would find it more difficult to wage preemptive war without the coloration of international legality, which the United Nations supposedly incarnates. So an irony stands out:
It would be more difficult for the president to wage war against Iraq if the United Nations did not exist. But if the United Nations, having passed 1441, now refuses to authorize war, the United Nations will essentially cease to exist.
There is the outline of a satisfactory outcome: Saddam Hussein removed, the United Nations reduced.