Robert Fisk: You wanted to believe him – but it was like something out of Beckett
06 February 2003
Sources, foreign intelligence sources, "our sources," defectors, sources, sources, sources. Colin Powell's terror talk to the United Nations Security Council yesterday sounded like one of those government-inspired reports on the front page of The New York Times – where it will most certainly be treated with due reverence in this morning's edition. It was a bit like heating up old soup. Haven't we heard most of this stuff before? Should one trust the man? General Powell, I mean, not Saddam.
Certainly we don't trust Saddam but Secretary of State Powell's presentation was a mixture of awesomely funny recordings of Iraqi Republican Guard telephone intercepts à la Samuel Beckett that just might have been some terrifying little proof that Saddam really is conning the UN inspectors again, and some ancient material on the Monster of Baghdad's all too well known record of beastliness. I am still waiting to hear the Arabic for the State Department's translation of "Okay Buddy" – "Consider it done, Sir" – this from the Republican Guard's "Captain Ibrahim", for heaven's sake – and some dinky illustrations of mobile bio-labs whose lorries and railway trucks were in such perfect condition that they suggested the Pentagon didn't have much idea of the dilapidated state of Saddam's army.
It was when we went back to Halabja and human rights abuses and all Saddam's old sins, as recorded by the discredited Unscom team, that we started eating the old soup again. Jack Straw may have thought all this "the most powerful and authoritative case" but when we were forced to listen to Iraq's officer corps communicating by phone – "yeah", "yeah", "yeah?", "yeah..." – it was impossible not to ask oneself if Colin Powell had really considered the effect this would have on the outside world.
From time to time, the words "Iraq: Failing To Disarm – Denial and Deception" appeared on the giant video screen behind General Powell. Was this a CNN logo, some of us wondered? But no, it was CNN's sister channel, the US Department of State.
Because Colin Powell is supposed to be the good cop to the Bush-Rumsfeld bad cop routine, one wanted to believe him. The Iraqi officer's telephoned order to his subordinate – "remove 'nerve agents' whenever it comes up in the wireless instructions" – looked as if the Americans had indeed spotted a nasty new little line in Iraqi deception. But a dramatic picture of a pilotless Iraqi aircraft capable of spraying poison chemicals turned out to be the imaginative work of a Pentagon artist.
And when General Powell started blathering on about "decades'' of contact between Saddam and al-Qa'ida, things went wrong for the Secretary of State. Al-Qa'ida only came into existence five years ago, since Bin Laden – "decades" ago – was working against the Russians for the CIA, whose present day director was sitting grave-faced behind General Powell. And Colin Powell's new version of his President's State of the Union lie – that the "scientists" interviewed by UN inspectors had been Iraqi intelligence agents in disguise – was singularly unimpressive. The UN talked to scientists, the new version went, but they were posing for the real nuclear and bio boys whom the UN wanted to talk to. General Powell said America was sharing its information with the UN inspectors but it was clear yesterday that much of what he had to say about alleged new weapons development – the decontamination truck at the Taji chemical munitions factory, for example, the "cleaning" of the Ibn al-Haythem ballistic missile factory on 25 November – had not been given to the UN at the time. Why wasn't this intelligence information given to the inspectors months ago? Didn't General Powell's beloved UN resolution 1441 demand that all such intelligence information should be given to Hans Blix and his lads immediately? Were the Americans, perhaps, not being "pro-active" enough?
The worst moment came when General Powell started talking about anthrax and the 2001 anthrax attacks in Washington and New York, pathetically holding up a teaspoon of the imaginary spores and – while not precisely saying so – fraudulently suggesting a connection between Saddam Hussein and the 2001 anthrax scare.
When the Secretary of State held up Iraq's support for the Palestinian Hamas organisation, which has an office in Baghdad, as proof of Saddam's support for "terror'' – there was, of course, no mention of America's support for Israel and its occupation of Palestinian land – the whole theatre began to collapse. There are Hamas offices in Beirut, Damascus and Iran. Is the 82nd Airborne supposed to grind on to Lebanon, Syria and Iran?
There was an almost macabre opening to the play when General Powell arrived at the Security Council, cheek-kissing the delegates and winding his great arms around them. Jack Straw fairly bounded up for his big American hug.
Indeed, there were moments when you might have thought that the whole chamber, with its toothy smiles and constant handshakes, contained a room full of men celebrating peace rather than war. Alas, not so. These elegantly dressed statesmen were constructing the framework that would allow them to kill quite a lot of people, the monstrous Saddam perhaps, with his cronies, but a considerable number of innocents as well. One recalled, of course, the same room four decades ago when General Powell's predecessor Adlai Stevenson showed photos of the ships carrying Soviet missiles to Cuba.
Alas, today's pictures carried no such authority. And Colin Powell is no Adlai Stevenson.