Colin Powell: Saddam Not a Threat … so why did we Lie?

Joe Conason points to a press conference in February, 2001, in which Secretary of State Colin Powell claimed that Saddam Hussein possessed no significant weapons of mass destruction:

“He has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors.”

I am happy to see the administration discredited, since a year and a half after he claimed that Iraq was not a threat, Colin Powell was in front of the U.N. with pictures explaining all the secret weapons Saddam had developed and was ready to deploy right away, and claiming that we have even more secret evidence that we can not share, but it is imperative to go to war now. Personally, I never bought the WMD argument – it sounded to me like the classic American strategy of creating the perception of an imminent enemy threat as a pretext for military aggression. I am unhappy that the administration damaged American credibility with this strategy.

On the other hand, I like to look at the larger statement, as Powell was addressing a question about sanctions:

“… the sanctions exist — not for the purpose of hurting the Iraqi people, but for the purpose of keeping in check Saddam Hussein’s ambitions toward developing weapons of mass destruction. We should constantly be reviewing our policies, constantly be looking at those sanctions to make sure that they are directed toward that purpose. That purpose is every bit as important now as it was ten years ago when we began it. And frankly they have worked. He has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors. So in effect, our policies have strengthened the security of the neighbors of Iraq, and these are policies that we are going to keep in place, but we are always willing to review them to make sure that they are being carried out in a way that does not affect the Iraqi people but does affect the Iraqi regime’s ambitions and the ability to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

I agree with the idea that we needed to invade Iraq to free the Iraqi people of their tyrant. Because, much more than other tyrants, we helped make him strong, and unlike other tyrants, we had seen fit to wage war against him, even if I did not agree with Desert Storm.

Wouldn’t it have been nice, if instead of making incredulous claims about WMD, which will likely fall flat, we had enough humility to admit that sanctions weren’t all that effective – that the Iraqi people were being hurt by sanctions, and whether Saddam was actually acquiring WMD or not, they were not an effective tool at keeping his hands off of imported materials? That would have been nice. Sure, the world would question our motives – America is in it for the oil, and to shore up domestic support for the President who seeks a distraction from a recession and his “War on Terror” – but we get that flak anyway. But … wouldn’t it have been nice if our justification for war was to free Arab people from the tyrant that we had helped to install, instead of our claims that the secular Arab tyrant was part and parcel of a wacko Muslim fundamentalist conspiracy typical of brown-skinned men with beards and turbans? I think Arabs might have appreciated the distinction.

I guess you could try and blame Powell’s insistence on a U.N. mandate for this dishonesty. I believe some conservative pundits have. If you go before the Security Council and say “we want to invade Iraq to rid that nation’s people of a bad man” the French, with their economic ties to the bad man, will laugh at you even harder than if your threaten them with fairy-tales about Anthrax and Dirty Bombs. Maybe we lied to the world in a futile attempt to get the U.N. on our side. Why would we do that? Because we weren’t confident in our ability to do such a large and protracted peace-keeping mission after the invasion? Because we were too cheap to shoulder the full financial burden of reconstruction? Given the strain that our military is under today, perhaps this was a laudible strategy, except that it failed.

Being an empire isn’t easy.


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