WASHINGTON - Even some who have questioned the need for war described Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's performance at the United Nations yesterday as a persuasive case for military action against Iraq within a matter of weeks.
Lawmakers from both parties, and defense analysts with varying opinions on Iraq, said they thought Powell put President Bush in a commanding position to seek a new U.N. resolution authorizing force. If the Security Council stalls, they said, Bush could be justified in leading an attack, even without overwhelming international support.
Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, senior Democrat on the House International Relations Committee and one of his party's most trusted voices on defense, said a new resolution would "help build the broadest military coalition possible."
"In the end, however, the United States may have to act without explicit Security Council backing," Skelton said. "Secretary Powell clearly showed why the disarmament of Iraq is critical to our security."
Hard-line voices remain on both sides of the debate. Some argue for immediate war, others for no war at all - at least not until U.N. weapons inspections are strengthened and given more time.
But Powell's presentation led to a bipartisan consensus that war might be only weeks away and that the United Nations must act, given Hussein's refusal to comply with a resolution requiring him to disarm or face serious consequences.
Some lawmakers and analysts said Powell's speech fell short of proving some key aspects of the U.S. case, such as that Iraq poses an imminent threat to America or its interests. And while Powell was convincing in showing Hussein's ties to terrorists, they said, he offered no clear evidence that Iraq has given or plans to give terrorists weapons of mass destruction.
Therefore, said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the conservative Lexington Institute, Bush should focus on Hussein's defiance of the United Nations, rather than trying to convince Americans and foreign leaders that there is an urgent threat from Iraq.
Thompson said Powell "presented persuasive evidence that the Iraqis are not complying" with U.N. resolutions. But he said no one could have expected Powell to prove that Iraq represents "a direct and immediate danger" to Americans.
"It's not possible to do that because it would involve mind-reading and judging Saddam's intentions," Thompson said. "Whenever the administration strays into arguing about Saddam's intentions or his ties to terrorism, their case becomes weaker."
The president has been taking two tacks. He has argued that the United Nations would lose its relevance if it did not disarm a dangerous nation that has defied U.N. resolutions. And he has insisted that Hussein poses an urgent danger and could any day decide to unleash his weapons on Americans or pass them to terrorists. Bush has said he is open to a second U.N. resolution but also insists that the United States already has the authorization it needs to attack Iraq.
Bush faces an American public that, polls show, wants to see more evidence of the threat posed by Hussein before backing a pre-emptive war with untold consequences. Some foreign leaders have also complained that Bush has not persuasively shown that Hussein plans to use his weapons against the United States or its allies.
The president allowed Powell to dominate the news yesterday and made no public remarks. According to aides, Bush watched most of Powell's presentation on television, alongside his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.
In Congress, many members say that if Bush decides to wage war, he must spell out the risks and possible costs.
Some Democrats continue to assert that Bush is rushing toward military conflict. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, said "the case has not been made, and was not made today, linking al-Qaida and Iraq to 9/11." Last week, Kennedy introduced legislation to require another vote by Congress before Bush could attack.
But other Democrats seemed to be moving closer to Bush's position. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who has been critical of the White House's stance on Iraq, said, "Powell made the most comprehensive case I have ever heard in a classified or unclassified setting about Iraq's culpability."
Powell, Feinstein said, demonstrated "there is much more of a connection between Iraq and the al-Qaida leadership than had been previously shown."
Rep. Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican who is chairman of the House International Relations committee, said that "Saddam has ignored repeated warnings from the United States and from the international community that he must disarm or face war" and that "we must now demonstrate to those who would harm us that our warnings are not empty words and that we will act decisively to defend ourselves."
Several analysts urged Bush to view Powell's performance as a constructive step in the president's effort to build more international support for his Iraq policy. To take a more unilateral path now, they said, would undercut whatever progress Powell might have made yesterday.
Jonathan Tucker, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace who served with the U.N. weapons inspectors in 1995, said the secretary gave a "masterful performance" and "made quite a good case that Iraq is continuing its past behavior."
"But there is not a pressing imperative for action within the next few weeks," Tucker said. "There is still time to work through the council. And Iraq has generally responded to a unified Security Council, backing down or becoming somewhat more cooperative."
Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served on President Bill Clinton's National Security Council, said Hans Blix, one of the chief U.N. weapons inspectors, would probably say in a report to the Security Council on Feb. 14 that inspections had hit a "dead end." At that point, Daalder said, the council would probably move toward authorizing force.
Daalder said Powell bolstered Bush's case for war by illustrating Hussein's contempt for the United Nations. But he noted that Powell did not convincingly argue that Iraq poses an immediate threat: "The administration continues to have a problem making the case that if we don't act this week or this month, the world will fall apart."
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