IN AN IDEAL WORLD, working out whether Saddam Hussein still has or wants weapons of mass destruction would not be a matter of subjective judgment, turning on how you rate Colin Powell's performance in the Security Council on Wednesday. Some people feel that America's secretary of state put forward an impressive case. Others argue that most of what he said was familiar, and that the bits that were new were inconclusive. The truth, vexingly, lies somewhere in between. But what is plain is that the Americans have not produced the fabled "smoking gun" that some governments insist on before they will support an American-led war to disarm Iraq.
Powell's forceful rehearsal of the existing case against Hussein will probably strengthen the conviction of those who say that Iraq's dictator poses a mortal danger to his region and the world, and so cannot be allowed to keep the deadly weapons America and Britain say he possesses. But the people and governments who never accepted this case in the first place will seize on the absence of any wholly clinching new evidence.
Why has no Western intelligence service published direct photographs of prohibited missiles or mass-killing weapons? How come America has not been able to guide the United Nations inspectors to any serious incriminating find on the ground? After a dozen years of Iraqi delinquency, shouldn't the spies of the CIA or Mossad have been able to wire the whole country up like an experimental rat? Why believe the defectors who tell America that they have seen mobile weapons labs that are invisible to Western agents? And so forth.
Although Powell's evidence should not be set at nought - his satellite photos and intercepts suggest to any reasonable observer that Iraq has something to hide - America has failed to prove beyond doubt to a skeptical world that Iraq has the weapons the Security Council has prohibited it from having.
Does this failure demolish America's case for war? Hardly. A skeptic may be entitled to wonder why Western intelligence has not yet produced stronger new evidence about the present location of Iraq's proscribed weapons. But it takes either a fool or a knave to swallow Hussein's countervailing plea that he has none. Logic, and a veritable mountain of circumstantial evidence, point the other way.
No presumed innocence
If Hussein has nothing to hide, why did he put up with economic sanctions, forfeiting billions instead of co-operating with the previous inspection regime in order to end them? Iraq's systematic deception of the first lot of inspectors sent to disarm it after the Persian Gulf war is a matter of record, not conjecture. Iraq placed so many obstacles in front of these inspectors that they withdrew in 1998. Now the Iraqis maintain that, having pushed the inspectors out, they voluntarily destroyed all the chemical and biological munitions they had worked so hard to conceal - and kept no record of how and when they had done so. It is not only the Americans who consider this account incredible. Hans Blix, the chief inspector himself, told the Security Council that Iraq even now had not genuinely accepted the UN's 12-year-old instruction to disarm, reiterated unanimously in November in Resolution 1441. Without Iraq's active cooperation, he said, the inspectors could not verify that it had disarmed by playing "catch as catch can." A country with Iraq's record deserves no presumption of innocence.
Last week's drama in the Security Council does not mean that the search for evidence is over. A lucky break or a tip-off could still help the inspectors to catch the Iraqis red-handed. But with an army mustering on Iraq's borders, the Americans will not play this game for long. Blix's next report to the Security Council is due Friday, and may be the last he is allowed to make before President Bush begins the countdown to war. Fighting might be postponed if Hussein made a convincing last-minute decision to offer the inspectors the active cooperation he has so far withheld. Failing that, the only big question that remains is whether the war will be fought with the explicit authority of the Security Council, under a new resolution, or by a narrow coalition without one.
A second resolution would be better. But this depends largely on France, which has so far used its influence to slow the move to war, and may yet use its veto in the Security Council to block such a resolution. That would not actually stop the war from happening: America and Britain claim, a bit too breezily, that they already have the authority they need. But the absence of a fresh mandate would deprive their action of useful international legitimacy, and reduce the support for it among their own citizens.
France has a habit of doing a lot of hemming and hawing before throwing in its lot with the Americans and British. That was its pattern before the last gulf war. This time, however, the atmosphere is different. President Jacques Chirac says his aims are to uphold the authority of the Security Council and ensure that war is a last resort. But he does not need America's evidence to know about Iraq's cheating. He gives the impression of being more interested in clipping the wings of the superpower than in tackling the problem of Hussein.
Chirac is not alone in thinking that America under Bush and after Sept. 11 is prone to taking unilateral action in the world. But in the case of Iraq Bush has worked carefully through the Security Council. That decision produced Resolution 1441, warning Iraq of serious consequences if it failed to take this final opportunity to disarm. Hussein has failed, and the Americans rightly insist that serious consequences must now ensue. If the French president thinks he is upholding the authority of the Security Council by allowing Iraq to treat such resolutions with scorn, he is wrong. And he is doubly wrong if he expects to constrain America by frustrating its efforts in the United Nations. Nothing could be better calculated to strengthen the spirit of American unilateralism he purports to detest. If France cannot in conscience support this war, better to stand aside than to stand in the way.