In Powell presentation, crucial test of diplomacy

WASHINGTON - If war and peace hang in the balance when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell addresses the United Nations Security Council tomorrow, so does Powell's six-month effort to be both President Bush's loyal soldier on Iraq and the nation's top diplomat.

It was Powell, among Bush's top advisers, who worried most about the consequences of a war with Iraq, particularly one in which the United States fought without strong international backing. He feared it could destabilize the Middle East and undermine the international coalition he has carefully tended since Sept. 11, 2001, to fight a global battle against al-Qaida.

And it was Powell who last August persuaded Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to work through the United Nations, arguing that if war came, the United States would be in a much stronger position if it could fight with the world's backing.

Now the pivotal moment many skeptics anticipated is approaching. Saddam Hussein, as was widely predicted, is refusing to cooperate fully with U.N. weapons inspectors, running afoul of the resolution Powell spent seven weeks negotiating.

Yet while Bush is voicing impatience, the U.N. Security Council, as of now, is paralyzed and unprepared to act.

Turning this around will depend heavily on the case Powell makes tomorrow, building on the tough critique of Iraq delivered a week ago by chief weapons inspector Hans Blix.

With declassified intelligence, Powell is expected to lay out evidence that Iraqis are actively concealing evidence of weapons of mass destruction, and he is expected also to make the case that Iraq has ties to terrorists, presenting the world with another grave threat.

But he acknowledges that his presentation will contain no "smoking gun," and it is unclear whether he will have persuasive enough evidence.

A French diplomat said yesterday that "new elements - something that we don't know already" will be needed.

"Powell will be more effective than anyone else could be," says Ivo Daalder, foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution. But the expectations of what Powell will disclose are now so high that the Bush administration risks undermining its case, he said.

"The world looks at the Powell presentation as make-or-break for whether or not they will support U.S. policy," Daalder said.

In the weeks leading up to tomorrow's presentation, Powell has sounded increasingly hawkish in his public statements, culminating in an article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday asserting that "We will not shrink from war."

He has also expressed exasperation toward fence-sitting or dovish Europeans, to the dismay of many who thought he was their ally. During Powell's trip last week to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey asked whether the United States "is in danger of relying too much upon ... hard power."

"It was not soft power that freed Europe," Powell replied. "It was hard power."

But Powell's new stance marks a continuation of the strategy that the Bush administration employed during the seven weeks it took to produce last November's tough U.N. resolution giving Iraq a "final opportunity" to disarm or face "serious consequences."

At that time, while Powell quietly negotiated with France and Russia, a series of bellicose statements from the White House "served to help convince others that you either get a resolution or you get a war," a senior administration official said at the time. The pressure worked, producing a unanimous Security Council resolution.

Now, the administration is once again trying to persuade other members of the Security Council that President Bush will act alone if necessary and that the council risks turning into a mere debating society.

Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, former chief of the Central Command and a Powell friend, said he didn't know whether Powell's previous deep concerns about going to war had eased or whether he is simply carrying out the president's policy. "At some point, when the president decides there's no more discussion, everybody's on the team," he said.

Powell has often been called on to accept, and then to sell, a policy that represents a hybrid of his, Rumsfeld's and Cheney's views. But Powell still wants to build a coalition, Zinni believes: "That's part of the reason for presenting the case to the U.N. The U.N. should be the vehicle."

British officials believe such a coalition is still possible. They hold out hope that a majority of the council will support a new Security Council resolution that would heighten pressure on Iraq and cause it to "crack without military action," as one Western diplomat put it. The case will be built not only by Powell, but also by Blix in his next report to the Security Council on Feb. 14, the diplomat said.

But for that to work, Brookings' Daalder said, the administration needs to be prepared to use the Powell presentation as a springboard for further active diplomacy. The stakes in tomorrow's meeting, he said, "are high - and they only get higher if this is all they do on the diplomatic front."

Recommended on Baltimore Sun