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Damaged credibility

The secretary of state put his reputation on the line when he made an exaggerated case for a war in Iraq that has violated the tenets of his own doctrine.

Published January 13, 2004

No one's reputation has suffered more damage than Secretary of State Colin Powell's as a result of the Bush administration's misrepresentations of the threat posed by Iraq in the months leading up to war. Other administration officials, such as Vice President Dick Cheney, were more reckless than Powell in making allegations that turned out to be exaggerated or untrue, but none of them enjoyed Powell's reputation for careful language and prudent action on matters of war and peace. In fact, Powell's seemingly meticulous presentation at the United Nations of Iraq's illegal weapons programs was a turning point in marshaling domestic and international support for the White House's decision to go to war.

Last week, a wan Powell made a half-hearted effort to vindicate some of his prewar assertions in light of postwar realities. He acknowledged that our government has found no "smoking gun" linking Saddam Hussein's regime to al-Qaida, much less to the Sept. 11 attacks. But Powell still claims that it was "prudent" to have considered "the possibility of such connections" prior to the war.

Yet Powell's Feb. 5 U.N. presentation claimed much more than "the possibility of connections" between Iraq and al-Qaida. Powell spoke then of "a sinister nexus . . . between Iraq and the al-Qaida terrorist network." And he added: "Iraqi officials deny accusations of ties with al-Qaida. These denials are simply not credible."

Powell also made a seemingly detailed case against Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction, using satellite photographs and other data that he said showed specific sites of illegal weapons and facilities. Yet the large U.S. contingent searching for evidence of illegal weapons in Iraq has effectively disbanded, having turned up nothing approximating a direct threat from chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

A newly released report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace concludes that the Bush administration systematically misrepresented the threat posed by Iraq. Whether Powell and other administration officials purposely exaggerated that threat or were genuinely misled by conflicting reports of Iraq's weapons capability, it is clear in retrospect that the White House relied on a flawed rationale to justify launching a pre-emptive war in the face of broad opposition at home and abroad.

A case could have been made for going to war to remove Hussein from power on strictly humanitarian grounds. It is essentially the same argument the Clinton administration used to justify going to war in the Balkans - in the face of virtually unanimous Republican opposition in Washington - to remove Serbian tyrant Slobodan Milosevic from power. Milosevic, like Hussein, engaged in systematic murder and torture on a genocidal scale that destabilized a strategically vital region.

Milosevic ultimately was removed without the loss of a single American life in combat. Hussein, too, has been removed, and the world is a better place with him behind bars. But the end of his regime has come at a dear price. Hundreds of American soldiers have been killed, and thousands have been gravely wounded. Iraqis have suffered on a far broader scale, and they are still a long way from establishing a stable, democratic government to replace the Hussein regime.

U.S. credibility also has suffered as a result of the dishonest case our government made for war. And no one's credibility has been damaged more than Powell's. Before Iraq, Powell was known for his adherence to what became known as the Powell Doctrine: Commit to the use of force only when our vital interests are threatened; only when Congress and the American people broadly support the military goals; only when our forces have a clear goal and exit strategy; and only when we are able to apply overwhelming military power to achieve victory.

Powell allowed himself to be used to sell the American public and the world community on a war policy that violated the fundamental tenets of his own doctrine. No wonder he looked like such a dispirited short-timer as he tried to defend himself last week.

[Last modified January 13, 2004, 01:33:02]


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