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6.2.03

Colin Powell's speech gave both sides of the debate over the war what they wanted to hear. Hawks can now point to Powell's speech as the definitive case for war, thus painting doves as willfully ignorant. Doves, meanwhile, can point to Powell's speech and claim that, if that's the best the US can muster, the case for war is hollow and hawks are therefore warmongers.

Hawks have been preparing for this speech for some time, preparing the storyline of Powell making the case for war in such a way that only a complete defection by the Secretary of State could have totally disrupted it. But Powell did not disappoint. He presented a cataloguing of evidence, sprinkled liberally with detail and bits of "raw data" (the samples of intercepted communications and satellite photos) that can foil attempts to brush aside the pro-war argument by forcing doves to refute a long list of items. The more times a person has to draw on various forms of epistemological doubt, the more they look like they're weaseling. Moreover, the content that the form shields is substantial. If you accept that Powell's bits of data are all accurate, they clearly add up to a picture of Iraq not being honest with the world and trying to hide something. Noncompliance of this sort is the standard that Bush agreed to when he gave in to demands to work through the UN first, and it forms the basis of Resolution 1441. On the balance, the hawks gained more from Powell's speech (at least in the US) than the doves.

Nevertheless, doves can also point to Powell's speech as supporting their talking point that the case for war has not been made, and they picked up a share of those who had remained undecided pending a clear statement of the administration's case. The fabled "smoking gun" -- a fully operational arsenal that can inflict serious damage on other nations -- was not part of Powell's dossier. Neither was there clear evidence that, supposing Saddam had a gun, he would use it on anyone. Further, the speech included a number of items -- such as a link between Iraq and al-Qaida, and photos of sites that inspectors have checked -- that doves consider to be already discredited. Powell's use of these questionable-at-best bits of evidence throws doubt on the face value of the facts that haven't been double-checked by dovish sources.

I don't think the ambivalence of the reaction to the speech is Powell's fault. Rather, it reflects the fine line Iraq has been able to tread. Saddam Hussein has certainly not volunteered full cooperation of the sort South Africa showed when it disarmed, and he has done his best to turn over as little of his weaponry as possible. On the other hand, he has cooperated "on process" (adhering to the letter, but not the spirit, of disarmament orders), and his arsenal is weak -- if for no other reason than that it's tough to hide full-blown weapons-making facilities from seven years of UNSCOM and a month of UNMOVIC inspectors. The problem is that there's a threshold of threat somewhere between groveling and defiance, and between cap guns and atom bombs. The disagreement between hawks and doves over how high that threshold is has influenced their respective assessments of where Iraq stands.

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