Powell doesn’t wow

America's evidence against Iraq is so last year.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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According to British foreign secretary Jack Straw, US secretary of state Colin Powell’s evidence against Iraq given to the UN yesterday was ‘powerful and authoritative’. So Straw wasn’t one of those who, according to the UK Guardian, ‘were looking at their watches’ and feeling ‘weary’ during Powell’s speech, then (1).

Powell’s speech may have been ‘powerful’, complete with fist-slamming and frowns, but was it ‘authoritative’? Some of it sounded more than familiar. Powell wheeled out the well-worn ‘aluminium tubes’ claim, as evidence that the Baghdad regime is keen to build a nuclear weapon. ‘Saddam is determined to get his hands on a nuclear bomb’, he declared. ‘He is so determined that he has made repeated covert attempts to acquire high-specification aluminium tubes from 11 different countries.’ (2)

The Bush administration has been talking up these tubes since at least September 2002 – and experts weren’t convinced first time around. In its September document A Decade of Deception and Defiance, the USA said that Iraq’s attempt to buy tubes pointed to a ‘clandestine programme to make enriched uranium for nuclear bombs’ (3). Not so, said the US Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), which pointed out that: ‘By themselves, these attempted procurements are not evidence that Iraq is in possession of, or close to possessing, nuclear weapons.’ (4)

Back in September, the Financial Times reported three problems with the notion that Iraq’s attempts to buy these materials were evidence of a nuclear weapons programme: ‘First, it is likely but not absolutely clear that this is Iraq’s favoured method of uranium enrichment….Second, the tubes could have been used for something else. Third, the alleged attempt to import the [materials] failed. So even if it was destined for a uranium enrichment facility, it never arrived.’ (5)

Powell also repeated the claims that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s alleged residence in north-eastern Iraq (and his alleged medical visit to Baghdad) is evidence of links between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Al-Zarqawi is a known associate of bin Laden’s, and US intelligence claims to have traced him to a north-eastern corner or Iraq, where he has allegedly been granted haven by Kurdish Islamic group Ansar al-Islam. Powell said there is a ‘sinister nexus between Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorist network, [which] combines classic terrorist organisations and modern methods of murder’ (6).

This al-Zarqawi is certainly doing the rounds. In early 2002, US officials claimed that he was in Iran, with the ‘knowledge of the Iranian military and intelligence forces’, proving that ‘Iran was allowing al-Qaeda terrorists to escape’ (7). In July 2002, US officials linked him to Hezbollah, raising ‘misgivings about greater cooperation between the world’s two most sophisticated Islamic terror networks’ (8). Now he’s apparently in Iraq, with the ‘likely knowledge’ of Saddam’s regime, allegedly proving there is ‘cooperation between Baghdad and al-Qaeda’ (9).

One of Powell’s main pieces of ‘evidence’ for a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda was an alleged comment made by a bin Ladenite. ‘Last year’, said Powell, ‘an al-Qaeda associate bragged that that the situation in Iraq was, quote, “good”.’ (10) That’s it: one word. Was this nameless al-Qaeda associate talking about north-eastern Iraq being ‘good’, or Baghdad? And when he said ‘good’, did he mean good for hiding in, good for holidays, good for badminton…? Powell didn’t elaborate.

It is of course possible, and maybe even likely, that al-Qaeda types routed from Afghanistan during the ‘war on terror’ consider north-eastern Iraq (where they are allegedly hiding) as a ‘good’ spot. This is the part of Iraq that was taken out of Saddam’s control after the original Gulf War of 1991, and where Kurds have been granted a limited form of self-rule.

This has resulted in two things: Saddam’s control over the region has been completely undermined, making it a less governed (and generally less governable) place than the rest of Iraq; and some Kurdish Islamic groups have found it easier to organise themselves and their campaigns against Baghdad.

So it may well have been the West’s undermining of Iraqi state control over northern Iraq that made it a potentially ‘good’ place for stateless terrorists like al-Zarqawi and co. It could have been America’s first war in the Gulf, and its interference since then, that created the ‘safe haven’ for al-Qaeda that Powell now frets about. But does this prove that Saddam is in cahoots with bin Laden? Not really. Does it suggest that al-Qaeda members are exploiting Saddam’s weakened control over parts of his state for their own ends? Possibly.

According to one report, Powell’s coup de grace were his satellite images which allegedly ‘graphically illustrated’ Iraq’s attempts to conceal banned weapons from UN inspection teams. But even Powell added the rider that the murky images were confusing: ‘The photos that I am about to show you are sometimes hard for the average person to interpret – hard for me.’ (11) That explains the big yellow arrows and big bright captions pointing to ‘Decontamination Vehicles’, ‘Forklifts’, ‘35-Ton Cargo Trucks’….

Mark Monmonier, an expert in space imaging from Syracuse University in New York, was unconvinced by the satellite shots. ‘The Bush administration either has little, or is playing its cards very close to the vest’, he said. ‘Of course, what they’re apparently looking for is not easily revealed on high-resolution space imagery. So much depends on intelligent inference, but inference none the less.’ (12)

Then there were Powell’s tape recordings of conversations between Iraqi officials, allegedly showing that they have been hiding dodgy weapons from inspection teams. No doubt there could be some truth in that, but that didn’t stop the translations sounding more funny than deadly – especially the combination of Islamic greetings (‘May God preserve you’) with Americanisms (‘Okay buddy’), and the vague references to ‘hidden material’ and ‘things’ that suggest the conversationalists knew very well that they were being bugged.

It is entirely feasible that Iraq is hiding weapons from inspectors; that Saddam wants to build bigger and better bombs; even that there may have been some level of contact between Iraqi officials and al-Qaeda types. But Powell’s evidence doesn’t prove any of this beyond reasonable doubt. Hans Blix, the UN’s chief weapons inspector inside Iraq, has rejected some of Powell’s claims, arguing that there is ‘no evidence of mobile biological weapons laboratories or of Iraq trying to foil inspectors by moving equipment before his teams arrived’ (13).

But this lack of convincing evidence doesn’t mean that Powell and America won’t win the argument about doing something nasty to Iraq. Why? Because the opposition to war is so weak and defensive.

Many of the Bush administration’s anti-war critics have made The Evidence against Iraq their main focus – always demanding better evidence, more evidence, harder evidence. This shows that they have little problem with America and Britain sitting in judgement on Iraq and deciding when and how to change the regime. They just need a bit more convincing, and would rather it was done through peaceful methods (like ‘intrusive inspections’ surrounded by armed guards?), rather than all-out war.

This is one reason why Powell is viewed by the Bush administration as a useful spokesperson for the war. For anti-war critics whose opposition is based more on tactics than principle – on the methods of interfering in another state’s affairs, rather than the question of interference itself – presentation is paramount. And Powell – dovish, level-headed, sensible Powell – is much more likely to convince them of the Bush administration’s tactical approach than ranting Rumsfeld or blathering Bush.

Powell’s evidence may have been weak, but so is the opposition to America and Britain’s war. When the ‘big clash’ between the pro-war and anti-war lobbies is a tactical one over evidence and methods, then even Powell’s blurry snapshots with their big yellow arrows might be enough to win over some of the antis.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) He implored. He threatened. A final transformation from dove to hawk, Guardian, 6 February 2003

(2) Full text of Powell speech, BBC News, 5 February 2003

(3) A Decade of Deception and Defiance, White House, 12 September 2002

(4) Evidence on Iraq challenged, Washington Post, 19 September 2002

(5) ‘Doubts over recent arms programme’, Financial Times, 22 September 2002

(6) Full text of Powell speech, BBC News, 5 February 2003

(7) Rumsfeld says enemies fleeing through Iran, Iraq, OnlineAthens News, 21 June 2002

(8) US officials observe al-Qaeda members reaching out to Hezbollah, Associated Press, 27 July 2002

(9) Full text of Powell speech, BBC News, 5 February 2003

(10) Full text of Powell speech, BBC News, 5 February 2003

(11) Full text of Powell speech, BBC News, 5 February 2003

(12) Spy in the sky good enough for most experts on the ground, Guardian, 6 February 2003

(13) US claim dismissed by Blix, Guardian, 5 February 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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