I don't know how the United Nations felt about Colin Powell's "J'accuse" speech against Saddam Hussein. I can only say that he persuaded me, and I was as tough as France to convince.
I'm not exactly a pacifist. Vietnam came close to making me one, but no one of the World War II generation can say war is never justified. I have resisted the push to war against Iraq because I thought George W. Bush was trying to pick a fight for all the wrong reasons -- big oil, the far right -- against the wrong enemy. The people who were pushing hardest are not people whose banner I could follow. I find our commander in chief a flighty thinker. The drumbeaters didn't inspire my confidence. All of them, despite their clamorous anticommunism, declined to wear the uniform for Vietnam, and some of them had the nerve, when the fighting was finally over, to write pieces for their neocon journals about how sorry they were to have missed the camaraderie of the foxhole and the firing line.
Richard Perle, a lead tenor in the war chorus, was the right hand of the late Henry Jackson, a hawk of hawks on defense issues. Gene McCarthy once remarked of Jackson, as a presidential candidate, "If he's elected, you will never see the sun -- the sky will be black with planes."
Among people I know, nobody was for the war. All of us were clinging tightly to the toga of Colin Powell. We, like the rest of the world, trusted him. We read Bob Woodward's "Bush at War" with admiration and gratitude for our stalwart secretary of state. We wished Powell would oppose the war, because it seemed like such a huge and misdirected overreaction to a bully who got on the nerves of our touchy Texas president. But resistance of any kind at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was a boon to peaceniks. Powell patiently and humbly waited for his chance to convince the president that he couldn't have a shootout with Saddam Hussein and ride off into the sunset of world approval.
When the protest crowds came to Washington, full of scorn for the commander in chief and his Cabinet cohorts, they made an exception of Colin Powell.
Powellites had a bad moment when he lost his cool with the French ambassador to the United Nations. The French invited him to a seminar on terrorism, but when he got there he received an antiwar blast from Dominique de Villepin. State Department and White House spinners put it out that the secretary was "livid" and "humiliated," and soon the buzz was that Powell, in his rage, had gone pro-war. I was told to remember that Powell was above all "a good soldier" and, once a decision was made, would salute.
Was it appalling that a man of Powell's stature would be small enough to think that because he had lost face, thousands might lose their lives? I knew it was bigger than that. But on Iraq, the president has been generous in sharing his personal feelings.
Yet the key to Powell's sterner line came from an unexpected source: the long-suffering chief of what Bush chose to call "the so-called inspectors": Hans Blix. In a progress report on Jan. 21, Blix castigated Hussein for having "no genuine acceptance of the demand to disarm" and for "a failure to demonstrate active cooperation with inspection."
Of course, Bush chose Powell to make the case before the United Nations. He has no one else who so commands the country's respect -- or the world's.
Powell took his seat in the United Nations and put his shoulder to the wheel. He was to talk for almost an hour and a half. His voice was strong and unwavering. He made his case without histrionics of any kind, with no verbal embellishments. He aired his tapes of conversations between Iraqi army officers who might well be supposed to be concealing toxic materials or enterprises.
He talked of the mobile factories concealed in trains and trucks that move along roads and rails while manufacturing biological agents. I was struck by their ingenuity and the insistence on manufacturing agents that cause diseases such as gangrene, plague, cholera, camelpox and hemorrhagic fever.
Would Saddam Hussein use them? He already has, against his own people and Iranians. He has produced four tons of deadly VX: "A single drop of VX on the skin will kill in minutes." The cumulative effect was stunning. I was reminded of the day long ago when John Dean, a White House toady, unloaded on Richard Nixon and you could see the dismay written on Republican faces that knew impeachment was inevitable.
I wasn't so sure about the al Qaeda connection. But I had heard enough to know that Saddam Hussein, with his stockpiles of nerve gas and death-dealing chemicals, is more of a menace than I had thought. I'm not ready for war yet. But Colin Powell has convinced me that it might be the only way to stop a fiend, and that if we do go, there is reason.