Secretary of State Colin Powell has addressed many tough crowds - but he'll be facing one of the most difficult tasks of his career this Wednesday when he presents evidence of Iraq's concealment of weapons to a skeptical UN Security Council audience.
In part that's because the evidence itself is likely to be ambiguous. While Mr. Powell will have a few declassified photos and intercepts that hint at Saddam Hussein's malfeasance,reports indicate he won't have the sort of substantiation that could make his audience gasp.
But Powell's problems also will stem from the fact that France, Germany, and other critics remain divided on a fundamental assessment of risk. Everyone knows Mr. Hussein is dangerous. To "old Europe," it's a danger that could be safely contained by UN inspections for years. To the US, it's a danger of such imminence that nothing but sudden and obvious disarmament - by force if necessary - will do.
"I think there is a legitimate difference in opinion over the methodology that will, at the least cost, achieve the disarmament of Iraq," says John Reppert, a retired Army brigadier general who headed the US On-Site Inspections Agency. "France and Germany will argue that ... inspectors' access will uncover more things, and that Iraq will be forced step by step to cooperate in its own disarmament. And while that may take two years, it will produce the same result without thousands of people being killed in the process."
Powell's persuasive powers will be needed not only to garner support for an invasion, but for a second UN resolution authorizing war that Britain's Prime Minster Tony Blair alluded to in his visit to Washington Friday.
Powell will also be making the case for financial assistance after any war with Iraq. Some estimates say $40 billion may be needed to rebuild and stabilize Iraq after a war. Countries such as France, Germany, China, and Russia are not only reluctant to participate or support a war - they've indicated they are not willing to help with the bill.
Yet Powell's briefing - the culmination of a daily release of details by administration officials, starting with the president's State of the Union speech - will be aimed as much at his domestic audience as the international one.
With inspectors on the ground making some headway, Powell must persuade many reluctant Americans, too, that the administration has done all it can to peacefully disarm Hussein, and that the time has come to end the threat he poses. A Washington Post-ABC News poll published yesterday showed that although 66 percent of Americans support military action - up from 57 percent two weeks ago - 57 percent of the country wants more proof that military might is necessary.
It's not clear yet how much solid evidence Powell will present on Wednesday. Administration officials said yesterday that intelligence officials are poring over documents, trying to decide what can safely be declassified. But administration officials say he will fill in gaps with a clear, concise case.
During his State of the Union speech, President Bush said the government has evidence of Hussein's ties to Al Qaeda, as well as intercepts and photos showing how Iraq is duping UN inspectors. A day later, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said he had facts, provided by the CIA, that substantiate Hussein's ties to Al Qaeda. "I won't repeat it," he said, but "one of the elements of Secretary Powell's presentation will be on that subject."
The administration continued rolling out bits of information throughout the week. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told his audience that "we feel a sense of urgency" about laying out the case for the world. He cited the fact that UN arms chief Hans Blix told the Security Council on Jan. 27 that Iraq still has not accounted for 25,000 liters of anthrax. "That's over 5 million teaspoons of anthrax," Mr. Armitage said. "In October of 2001, less than a teaspoon of anthrax in an envelope brought chaos to this body."
Armitage also said they have clear evidence that "Al Qaeda is harbored, to some extent, in Iraq.... And this will be part of the information that Secretary Powell is going to impart in some detail."
An intelligence official, who told the Monitor in October and November that the CIA had no clear ties between Hussein and Al Qaeda, backed away from that claim on Friday. But he refused to go further, saying that all the information they've collected since then will come out through Powell.
Armitage also claimed that Hussein is hiding mobile biological-weapons laboratories and misleading inspectors. And he said Powell would present clear evidence of that as well on Wednesday.
The administration seems sure it will be able to make a convincing case both domestically and internationally that the time to move has come. But whether or not international support is forthcoming, Mr. Reppert thinks the US "will start moving toward a termination date and withdrawal of inspectors from Iraq."
He says speculation is rife that the US push may cause a permanent rupture between Europe and the US. Germany and France, particularly, face difficulties in supporting a war because the public in both countries is so strongly against it. But "60 days after the war, everyone will be satisfied," Reppert argues. "The US will take huge abuse during the 30 to 60 days of war, but it's a short-term rather than a long-term cost."
Judith Yaphe, a National Defense University expert on Iraq, agrees. "When the day is done, and the US is ready to roll, it's 'be there or be square,' " she says. "A lot of these Europeans are going to say, 'if we want to be there at the end, we've got to be there at the beginning.' "