It wasn't exactly the response Colin Powell was hoping for. After an exhaustive account of Iraq's weapons programs, the U.S. secretary of State sat back to let the world digest his indictment of Saddam Hussein's regime.
But instead of the cheers of approval--or even a few murmurs of acknowledgement--Powell's much-hyped presentation met with a stubborn inertia inside the luxurious chamber of the United Nations Security Council today. Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister, urged the U.N. to "double or triple" the number of weapons inspectors in Iraq. China, the first to respond to Powell's presentation, was even clearer, speaking of the "universal desire of the international community to see a political solution" to the crisis in Iraq.
Indeed, the seating plan of the Security Council chamber made the politics of the moment crystal clear.
China was sitting next to France, which was in turn placed next to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who sat alongside Germany. All four are opponents of American policy on Iraq and have stated their determination to stick with the inspections process and avert a U.S.-led war. Behind them sat the chief U.N. weapons inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohammed El Baradei, who also are seeking more time to complete their work in Iraq. At the far ends of the almost-circular Security Council table--physically and politically isolated--were Powell and his British counterpart, Jack Straw.
All this came after Powell made a compelling presentation--not just against Iraq, but against the inspections process itself. Playing tantalizing intercepts of conversations between Iraqi military officers, Powell made what seemed to be a cast-iron case of Iraq's concerted efforts to hide its weapons from the U.N. inspectors. Satellite pictures showed convoys of trucks outside what Powell called chemical-weapons plants. Warheads were being hidden in groves of palm trees. Biological materials were being produced in rail cars and cargo trucks. If Iraq is hiding so much, how could the inspectors ever lay their hands on Iraq's illegal weapons?
In the face of that argument, Powell went back to Bush's challenge to the U.N. from last September. The Security Council, he said, was "in danger of irrelevance if it allows Iraq to defy its will." Powell also made a more direct appeal for support from some of his most stubborn counterparts on the Security Council. If they didn't care about the U.N., they should at least care about terrorists in their own countries.
That was the hardest-hitting--and most controversial--part of Powell's presentation. Both the U.S. intelligence community and analysts abroad have questioned whether there are links between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Yet Powell directly tied Baghdad to terrorist cells in France and Russia, as well as Britain. Fighting Saddam Hussein could be linked directly to President Vladimir Putin's politically popular battle with Chechen terrorists in Russia, and President Jacques Chirac's crackdown on North African terrorist cells in France, argued Powell.
If the evidence was not as convincing as the intelligence against Iraq's weapons programs, then that hardly mattered. Powell was offering that most precious commodity inside the U.N.--political cover. Cast as part of the war on terror, military action in Iraq could look far more palatable to voters in France and Russia, which both exercise a veto in the Security Council.
But as Powell laid out the evidence against Iraq, it looked as if the French officials were not keen to take that political cover to hide a climbdown from their opposition to war. Villepin looked impatient--and even bored--as Powell delivered perhaps his most memorable phrase about Iraq's chemical-weapons programs: "Call it ingenious or evil genius."
It was all supposed to be an Adlai Stevenson moment, recalling the former U.S. ambassador's Security Council showdown during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. But Stevenson's high point was less his famous satellite pictures than his direct verbal challenge to the Soviet ambassador to respond to his charges.
Powell staged no such confrontation at the Security Council. That sense of drama--which British officials say they desperately need to win over their skeptical public--will have to wait for another day. Perhaps the inspectors themselves can stage a confrontation with the Iraqis, as the Brits hope. But then, after Powell laid out his evidence to the Security Council, no one should expect the Bush administration to give the inspectors any more time.
"I believe that Iraq is now in further material breach of its obligations," Powell concluded, using the U.N. language that normally triggers military action. "I believe this conclusion is irrefutable and undeniable. Iraq has now placed itself in danger of the serious consequences."
Whether or not Powell changed anybody's mind will be seen in the next few days. But what Powell succeeded in doing at the Security Council was starting the final countdown on both the U.N. process against Iraq, and Saddam Hussein's regime.