Avoidable war with no winners

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 16 Feb 2003


WHEN President George W. Bush declared 10 days ago that “the game is over” for Saddam Hussein, he meant that Washington had tired of a world requiring compelling evidence before toppling a foreign leader by force. 

Only the day before, Secretary of State Colin Powell had given Washington’s best-case scenario of a worst-case Iraq, so why would anyone still have to quibble over annihilating the country? 

Chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix, asking for more time to complete the inspectors’ work, said “we’re still in the game.” While pressing Baghdad to open up to more stringent inspections, Blix was not impatient for an American-led bloodbath. 

While Bush meant to convey a sense (and desire) that gloves were now off in US dealings with Iraq, what was more obvious was that Powell’s liberal mask had fallen away. Here was a man who, famously touted as a dove in hawks’ company, was pressing the case for war to a world audience. 

Powell had become the Republican government’s secret weapon to sell the war to the nation and the world. Many were surprised at his seeming about-face, while many others became sold on the war. 

Observers everywhere noted the passing of Powell’s liberal phase, caused either by his weakness in a nest of hawks or the strength of the case for war. However, David Anthony, writing in last October’s Harper’s Magazine, is convinced that Powell was never the liberal that White House spinmeisters and uncritical American media had allowed him to seem. 

Gen Colin Powell was Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff when George Bush Sr made his first devastating attacks on Iraq, including shooting retreating Iraqis in the back. Armstrong finds Powell among Republican hawks who drafted the imperial Defence Planning Guide in 1992, which sought US domination of the world. 

Powell wanted to expand US military power to ensure that no other country would ever achieve parity. In a presentation to the House Armed Services Committee a decade ago, he said: “I want to be the bully on the block.” 

The so-called Powell Doctrine  

involves being more selective about military adventures than the average warmonger, but also unleashing overwhelming terror to subdue and decimate the enemy once fighting begins. Thus the strategy of saturating Iraq with 800 missiles in 48 hours, with no real prospect of distinguishing between soldiers and civilians; from Vietnam to Palestine, Powell is known to accept civilian massacres as part of war tactics. 

So “the game is over” really means Powell finally blowing his liberal cover, ending the role of “good cop” to the Pentagon gang’s “bad cop.” His task is now more difficult since it involves being a soldier doing a diplomat’s job in a politician’s shoes, in a world unsupportive of US plans to annex Iraqi governance. 

Despite the best efforts of the world’s top military machine, Powell’s case for war was too weak to sway most countries. Those impressed with his UN presentation seemed taken more by his style than his substance. 

In the US itself, popular impressions remained superficial: while two-thirds of people after his presentation supported a conditional war, a slim majority was still unimpressed with Washington’s overall performance. Much of the weakness in Powell’s UN extravaganza lay in its content, while his rapid-fire delivery impressed some by discouraging deeper reflection on what he actually said. 

His attempt to link Iraq to al-Qaeda consisted of dubious allegations of guilt by association, while any real link might have been produced by Bush’s “axis of evil” threat actually serving to unite these enemies. Powell did not mention that many missing Iraqis were victims of US bombing, or that for half the “more than 20 years” of Saddam’s rule the US and Britain supported and armed Iraq. 

Neither did Powell mention that President Reagan and the CIA had cleared Saddam of suspicions of gassing Kurds in 1988, or that al-Qaeda and Iraq were so bitterly opposed to each other that Osama bin Laden once tried to kill Saddam. 

Powell condemned Iraq for seeking missiles in excess of a 150km range, although Iraq may have a legitimate defence need for them when attacked by US forces in the Gulf. 

He even had to resort to discredited claims such as a meeting between an al-Qaeda suspect and Iraqi agents when it had been debunked by the CIA, and how Iraq had “kicked out” previous UN arms inspectors when Richard Butler’s team chose to withdraw in 1998. 

Powell said Iraq spurned UN resolutions such as UNSC Resolution 1441, without mentioning that the US-imposed “no-fly zones” broke international law by undermining Iraqi national sovereignty. 

Powell claimed that spy satellites took pictures of banned weapons sites, but did not explain why there were no pictures of weapons or why those sites were not promptly investigated. He also did not explain why Iraq conveniently left “signature” markings on bunkers and construction of some equipment in the open to be photographed. 


The veracity of Powell’s “human sources” and communication intercepts is also dubious: Iraqi immigrants and dissidents can be induced to exchange a hot story for a chance to live the American Dream. With all the fanfare of stage whispers, the recordings of conversations between supposed Iraqi officials repeated incriminating things that should have been obvious to them, in the knowledge that their conversations were being recorded. 


Powell accused Iraq of being the only country to use vast amounts of chemical weapons in recent decades, avoiding comparisons with the vast 20 million-gallon arsenal of Agent Orange the US used against Vietnam.  

American Scott Ritter, a former UN arms inspector known for his intrusive search-and-destroy methods, contradicted Powell by saying that Iraq’s store of banned weapons had been destroyed by late-1998, and any organic strain for biological weapons could not survive today beyond its shelf life. 


Even before Powell’s presentation, Washington let slip that he would not be presenting hard evidence. And during his presentation, Powell confessed he was no expert on interpreting satellite pictures or on suspect “dual-use” aluminium tubing. 

These serve as escape clauses for the day when the US allegations may be exposed as error or fraud. There is a history of such malpractice, from the satellite photos of alleged Iraqi troop build-ups on the Saudi border to justify a massive US attack, to the “Gulf of Tonkin incident” as pretext for a US escalation of the Vietnam War. 

This is also why many people in many countries are still unconvinced by the case for a US war. Far from fighting terrorism as well, a unilateral war against Iraq will help terrorists in real and important ways.  

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