Reaching and grasping

February 16, 2003

COLIN POWELL is blowing it. The task handed to the secretary of state was to convince the world, and in particular America's allies, of the justice of the U.S. case against Iraq. On Feb. 5, at the United Nations, he gave it his best shot - but since then hopes of forging an international consensus have shriveled.

In recent days it has come to seem as if Mr. Powell is grasping at straws - or, more accurately, at one straw. The al-Qaida straw.

On Tuesday, he claimed that an apparent tape of Osama bin Laden cheering on the Iraqis proved an actual connection between them. Then, amid all the back and forth Friday at the United Nations about Iraqi compliance and more inspectors and what the inspectors' actual job should be, Mr. Powell's central argument came down in the end to Iraq and al-Qaida, and, again, their purported ties. This is what it's all about, he said.

Frankly, without any real evidence, that just isn't good enough. It looks like desperation. It looks like Mr. Powell is floundering, anxiously casting about for some justification for an American attack. Is it any wonder the French are saying Non?

People in the Bush administration point out that Iraq has the means of mass destruction, but not the reach; al-Qaida has the reach, but not the means. Put the two together, and you've got a nightmare. All true.

But the inconvenient fact is that al-Qaida already has well-established links with other malefactors - the secret services of Pakistan, for instance, which has its own solid and proven share of weapons of mass destruction. There are, as a matter of fact, at least a dozen nations in Asia and Africa, not counting former Soviet republics, that are thought to possess bioweapons. Among them, besides Iraq: Syria, Sudan, North Korea (yes, that North Korea), Libya and Iran.

So, who appointed Baghdad as the chief suspect? And with all the world's high-tech attention focused on Iraq, would a secret handover of grossly destructive weapons to a small terrorist group even be possible?

It's clear that Iraq is not in compliance with U.N. resolutions. It's also clear that the military conduct of an American war against Iraq would be pretty much the same with or without U.N. approval. But it's not at all clear that a unilateral American attack would be the best answer to Iraqi intransigence.

Every signal from Washington suggests to the rest of the world that that is precisely what the Bush administration intends to go ahead and launch anyway. Mr. Powell's defense of U.S. policy, perversely, is growing weaker as time goes by.

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