To: Colin Powell

From: Your fan, Richard Cohen

Re: Watch your words

Sir, I write to you after reading a transcript of your remarks to the Senate Budget Committee in which you said that Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist organization were in some sort of "partnership with Iraq." You seemed to base that on the audiotape played on al-Jazeera, the Middle Eastern television network that, like Fox News, purports to be evenhanded. Here, sir, are your (abbreviated) exact words.

"Once again, he [bin Laden] speaks to the people of Iraq and talks about their struggle and how he is in partnership with Iraq. This nexus between terrorist states that are developing weapons of mass destruction can no longer be looked away from and ignored."

But, sir, bin Laden also has some harsh words on the tape for Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party regime. He calls them "infidels." He says, "The socialists [the Baath Party] and the rulers have lost their legitimacy a long time ago, and the socialists are infidels regardless of where they are, whether in Baghdad or in Aden."

It seems to me, sir, that this statement substantiates what many experts have long maintained: that bin Laden loathes the secular, hedonistic dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. That does not mean, of course, that he hates Hussein more than he hates the United States. That is not the case -- and he says so. It's just that to use this statement to establish some sort of "nexus" between bin Laden and Hussein seems to be a reach.

In fact, to be perfectly frank, sir, parts of your presentation to the United Nations seem, in retrospect, to have overstated the case. The telephone intercepts and satellite photos were compelling, but the purported link -- and the word "purported" was not used -- between al Qaeda and Baghdad not only was not proved, but a gaggle of experts jumped all over it. This business of someone being somewhere (Baghdad, for instance) and then going somewhere else (rebel-held Kurdistan, for instance) is suggestive, not definitive. It didn't help either that the British intelligence report you cited was mostly lifted from magazines.

Sir, you don't need any of this. Iraq is in violation of U.N. Resolution 1441 -- no ifs, ands or buts. It will not account for its weapons of mass destruction -- chemical and biological for sure, maybe nuclear down the road. It is ruled by a thug who twice invaded neighboring countries and whose human rights record is as wretched as one could be. There is no need to gild the lily. The case for war is a good one.

Sir, we must not forget Vietnam. We lost that conflict -- and not just on the battlefield. The government lost the confidence of the people. It exaggerated the threat with the alarmist domino theory. It lied about what was happening in the countryside, even the proximate cause of the war -- the purported attack by North Vietnam on two U.S. warships. It secretly expanded the war -- the bombing of Cambodia, for instance. Vietnam, coupled with Watergate, betrayed the American people's trust in their government. We still live with its residue.

Sir, in his kiss-and-not-tell book, David Frum, the former White House speechwriter, tells us about George W. Bush's insistence on honesty -- on refraining from even politically acceptable exaggeration. I accept what he has to say. Yet it's apparent that when it comes to making the case for war with Iraq, both Bush and his aides have tickled the facts so that everything proves their case. Caveats, doubts and conditional clauses have been expunged from the record. They have so often given themselves the benefit of every doubt that they have encouraged doubt itself.

You, sir, are in a different category altogether. The nation looks to you as the voice of reason -- the reluctant warrior, someone who has known war and hates it. You were the naysayer in the first Bush administration about the Persian Gulf War. You thought Bill Clinton was wrong about going into Bosnia and then Kosovo. More recently, you were the one who insisted that the United States take its case to the United Nations.

We can understand now that you are vexed -- the United Nations has let you down. The French have been duplicitous. Now even NATO is wobbly. This is not a happy time, and I bet there's truth to the report that when told that President Bush sleeps like a baby, you said you do too -- "every two hours I wake up screaming."

As for me, I sleep better knowing that you are in this administration -- making policy, I hope, and not propaganda.