The Powell Factor

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Saddam Hussein agreed to the return of United Nations weapons inspectors "without conditions." The Iraqi dictator has U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to thank for leading him to adopt a strategic move that has baffled Powell's own president and stymied a U.S. attack. The reason for Iraq's decision given by its Foreign Minister Naji Sabri in his Sept. 16 letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan ("to remove any doubts that Iraq still possesses weapons of mass destruction") is nonsense. We must look to the actions of Powell to understand why Saddam did what he did.

Powell first went to U.S. President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in late August with the message that a unilateral attack on Iraq would have serious military, political, and economic repercussions. International support would be essential to legitimize a strong military strike with minimal adverse consequences. In return for their approval to go the UN route, Powell committed himself to their hard line. No more public doubts would appear from him about a "forward-leaning" policy (war) if Saddam did not comply with UN resolutions. He agreed that Saddam must comply or go.

Giving up the "good cop" role and joining the "bad cops" had another function for Powell besides getting the issue to the UN. It sent a message to Saddam that he could not count on splits in the Bush administration to prevent regime change if he failed to allow the return of inspectors.

Powell then moved to increase diplomatic pressure on Saddam to reverse his no-inspection policy. Annan was persuaded to take a hard line, to state that "the leadership of Iraq continues to defy mandatory resolutions adopted by the Security Council. If Iraq's defiance continues, the Security Council must face its responsibilities." Annan thereby indicated he would favor military action if Iraq did not change course. The secretary-general even worked with Sabri on the language of the letter agreeing to inspections, language that Powell previously indicated would meet U.S. demands (as he understood them at the time). The phrase "without conditions" was crucial.

At the same time, Powell actively lobbied China, Russia, France and the Arab League to press upon Saddam that a U.S. military attack would occur if he did not accept inspections, regardless of the lack of multilateral support. The implication, which everyone understood, was the notion that accepting inspections would create active diplomatic opposition by these states against a U.S. military strike. (And this is exactly what happened after the Iraqi letter was delivered.)

Powell even approved a visit to Baghdad by a U.S. delegation headed by congressman Nick Raihall, a Democrat from West Virginia. It conveyed the message that the U.S. Congress would authorize military action if Iraq did not comply with UN resolutions.

The message got through.

Other factors undoubtedly affected Saddam's surprising turnabout. Arranging inspections would take time. In the meantime, Bush and his hawks would be undermined, frustrated and isolated in their real objective -- overthrowing Saddam. Bush could not, as he always does, claim victory regardless of outcome.

Saddam, as all foreign leaders do, reads the U.S. political scene. He could make war with Iraq fade as the driving issue in U.S. politics and in the upcoming congressional elections. Rising long-term unemployment, growing budgetary deficits, plunging stock values eroding millions of American pensions, zooming prescription drug costs and accelerating transportation gridlock on the nation's roadways are issues that would put Bush's Republican congressional supporters in some peril.

One can even speculate that Saddam recognizes that Bush, personally, would feel the heat in 2004 from these issues. Bush, at least to everyone who has read his campaign memoirs, "A Charge to Keep: My Road to the White House," is very loyal to friends and very hard on opponents. We may safely assume that Saddam acts similarly. Undercutting Bush's popular warrior leadership could make the second Bush a one-termer like his father. In addition, if Bush was using UN resolutions to back his case, Saddam could do the same in demanding that economic sanctions be lifted after the return of inspectors in accordance with UN resolutions.

For Powell, he must stay with his hard line and carry out White House orders to urge tough resolutions from Congress and the UN Security Council. At the UN, Powell called for "tough conditions, tough standards" for Iraqi disarmament. "There were shortcomings in the previous inspection regime" Powell said, "that I don't think would be acceptable in a future inspection regime." His hard line is necessary to keep Saddam committed to unfettered inspections. Backtracking by Iraq would open the way to war, something that Powell has worked hard and masterfully to prevent.

Powell has done more than just prevent the United States and the Bush administration, in his judgement, from making a big mistake. He has moved the issue to the diplomatic playing field, the very arena where he -- not Cheney or Rumsfeld -- is the principal player. And he believes that "giving his best advice to the president," as he said Sept. 15 on "Meet the Press," is the supreme focus of his job as secretary of state. Needless to say, Powell wants his best advice to matter.

Finally, assuming Saddam carries through on unconditional inspections (and it is an assumption worth constantly testing), it will be difficult for the Security Council to authorize war. In effect, Bush has lost control of the issue, and it is ironic that in doing so, he may have been prevented from making a disastrous war that would guarantee the end of his presidency. For this, he, too, has Powell to thank.

Nicholas Berry, director of ForeignPolicyForum.com in Washington, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.