WASHINGTON - Whether or not Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has now made the case for war against Iraq, he has indisputably proved one thing - his indispensability in the American effort to enlist the United Nations in the undertaking.
Mr. Powell's immense credibility, patiently constructed in the course of persuading a reluctant President Bush to go to the United Nations, provided as much to his argument before the U.N. Security Council as all the impressive evidence and interpretations he offered of Iraqi deceptions.
By putting that credibility on the line, Mr. Powell went a long way toward convincing the world that Saddam Hussein has been aggressively masking his pursuit and likely possession of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction.
He has not yet, however, satisfied those who still question that the threat of weapons use is "imminent," requiring immediate military action that will short-circuit continued on-the-ground inspections by the U.N. team. Security Council members from France, Germany, Russia and China all emphatically said so after Mr. Powell's speech.
To make this point is not to ignore the intelligence that Mr. Powell laid before the council. Producing live witnesses of Iraqi deception, rather than Mr. Powell's report of what they said, would have been more persuasive. But apparently the need to protect intelligence sources precluded that possibility.
Also, photos of Iraqi "mobile production facilities for biological agents" rather than artists' conceptions would have been harder for doubters to question. In 1962, when then-U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson had the goods on the Soviet Union's deployment of missiles in Cuba, photos made an irrefutable case.
But these caveats are almost beside the point if the U.S. objective at this late date is to persuade recalcitrant Security Council and other U.N. members to join Mr. Bush's "coalition of the willing" against Iraq.
The pragmatic reason for allowing more time for inspections is not that the inspectors may find the elusive "smoking gun" that Mr. Powell's presentation, for all its impressiveness, did not uncover. It is to convince these U.N. members that there is no prudent alternative to collective military action and thus enlist the same comprehensive international coalition that the senior George Bush constructed for the first Persian Gulf war.
It is probably a legitimate assumption that for all the wishful thinking that Mr. Hussein will buckle before a shot is fired, he is not likely to accept exile and clear out of Baghdad. But as long as hostilities have not begun, there is always the hope that some alternative to all-out war can be found.
Meanwhile, can anybody explain why the objections of the Iraqi dictator to high-flying U-2 surveillance planes should keep them out of the skies over his country? If their use can produce the sort of evidence of against Iraq that will break the logjam of resistance at the United Nations, they should be in the air with no further delay.
For now, Mr. Powell's presentation appears at least to have softened opposition to the war option among some Democratic congressional leaders, even as they call for a limited continuation of inspections. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, however, said after Mr. Powell's presentation: "The question is whether war now is the only way to rid Iraq of these deadly weapons. I do not believe it is." Yet few alternatives are being offered.
Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on Capitol Hill, stubbornly continues to urge Mr. Bush to ask Congress to declare war before he invades Iraq. But the issue has moved well beyond that. The question now is whether Mr. Bush can at last bring the United Nations aboard, with a few more weeks of inspections - and Mr. Powell's credibility - his best diplomatic weapons.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.