Posted on February 10, 2003 in Washington Watch

Secretary of State Colin Powell presented his case before the UN Security Council this week. His remarks were directed at two audiences: reluctant allies and a still unconvinced American public. The response has been mixed.

Hawks, ready to go to war, argued that Powell was “compelling and convincing”. In fact, the Secretary’s calm and commanding presence combined with his multi-media presentation of audio tapes and photographs established a strong, though circumstantial, case to back up U.S. allegations that the Baghdad regime has not fully complied with UN mandates.

The major difficulty with Secretary Powell’s presentation, however, was not the case it made, but the case it did not address. Quite simply, the questions being asked by those still unconvinced are “why does this situation require a war and why now?”. The United States’ European and Arab allies and a substantial number of Americans are not asking for proof of the Iraqi government’s brutality or evil intent. This, for the most part, is accepted as true. What the unconvinced want Powell to address is how this projected war meets the broad requirements of what a decade ago was called the Powell Doctrine.

As formulated by Powell and, in its earliest form, former Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, this doctrine posed six requirements that must be met before the United States should engage in any military conflict. They were:

  1. that vital US interests were at stake or at risk;

  2. that the US was willing and able to commit sufficient resources to win swiftly, decisively and with minimal causalities;

  3. that military and political objectives were clearly defined and delineated;

  4. that there was a political will to sustain the commitment needed to realize these objectives;

  5. a reasonable expectation existed at the outset that the American public and the Congress would support this commitment and would sustain that support; and

  6. that all possible means of resolving the conflict had previously been exhausted.

The Powell Doctrine was a product of the Secretary’s experiences in Vietnam and several other disastrous military engagements that followed Vietnam, especially Lebanon and Somalia. These experiences weighed heavily on Powell when as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff he was asked to consider sending U.S. troops to Haiti and later Bosnia/Serbia. He was reluctant to engage in what he felt were ill-defined, open ended missions that could both over commit U.S. resources and lives and ultimately prove unsustainable because of a loss of public support.

For this reason, Powell came to be called, a “reluctant warrior”. And it was in part for this reason that many Americans increased their respect for him. They trusted that he would not risk American lives or contemplate foreign wars unless stiff conditions were met.

In this context it is interesting to see polls last week showing that Secretary Powell’s favorable ratings are still substantially higher than the President’s. And when Americans are asked whom they trust more to make the decision to go to war, again, Powell wins decisively over President Bush.

At the same time, it is intriguing that U.S. polls following Powell’s speech show that while a significant majority of the public was impressed with his presentation and felt he made an effective case against Iraq, nevertheless, a majority of Americans still want the Administration to take more time before going to war. And a healthy majority still does not want the U.S. to enter a war unless the UN sanctions it.

In this regard, the case that Powell did not make remains the more critical one. There are fundamental questions that must be answered: What is the precise objective of this war?; How will the US define victory?; and Will the U.S. largely bear the burden of this war alone?

With Al Qaeda still a real threat, with the U.S. military engaged in a long-term nation-building experiment in Afghanistan, and with the danger that a war on Iraq will upset the already fragile regional U.S. coalition against terrorism, the American public quite rightly requires answers to these questions that have still not been addressed.

A reporter called me after Powell’s speech. He asked me the following question, “I have just spoken to a number of Iraqi Americans who felt strongly that Secretary Powell made a case against Saddam. Why don’t you support this war?”

I responded quite simply, “It doesn’t take much to make a case against Saddam, but that is not the same as making a case for this war. I care about the Iraqi people and long to see them freed from this brutal dictator. But I also care about America and still do not understand how my country will be more secure and better respected if we engage in this war without regional and broader international support.”

There is in the air, the infantile neo-conservative fantasy that this war will take about one week and will provide such a shock to the Arab system that extremists will fall devastated and democracy will flourish. One cannot base a U.S. policy that risks American and Iraqi lives on such flimsy and dangerous assumptions.

Powell is not a neo-conservative. He has always been a serious, thoughtful soldier. It is for this reason that many Americans still look to him to make the case for war. In his UN speech last week, he made a case against Saddam but not a case to go to war. This still remains to be done.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org.

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