Secretary of State Colin Powell convinced me. I am ready to bomb Iraq and wipe out the terrorists. Allow me to explain.

It’s not that an invasion and occupation is justified at this time. Powell’s presentation at the United Nations made a strong case…for the proposition that Saddam Hussein is a deceitful SOB who probably does want to preserve whatever sort of mass-killing weapons programs he can hide from UN inspectors. Let’s accept as a given that Saddam is concealing such programs and not fully cooperating with the inspections program. Is the most effective response a massive US military action aimed at toppling his murderous regime and one that leaves Washington responsible for what comes next?

George W. Bush, Powell, and the rest of the gang can argue that the United States merely will be enforcing Resolution 1441, which compels Saddam to give up his weapons of mass destruction. But such enforcement ought to be the prerogative of the United Nations Security Council. If Saddam is in violation of one of its resolutions, the Security Council ought to debate and determine the “serious consequences” it promised to deliver in 1441. One option might be to beef up inspections. Send in several hundred more inspectors. Hell, maybe a thousand. Use the intelligence information Powell shared at the UN for more in-your-face inspections. Threaten the selective use of force at sites where the Iraqis might not be cooperating. The mission: drive the Iraqis nuts, as they try to evade and thwart inspections. The more time and energy they devote to concealment and evasion, the more their WMD program will be disrupted. The previous inspections prevented Iraq from making large strides in the WMD business for seven years.

Certainly, such an option has risks. It cannot guarantee an Iraq completely devoid of WMD. Perhaps Saddam will still find a way to develop and hide horrific weapons. But this risk has to be weighed against the possible costs of an invasion–which might have to be a unilateral strike–and a subsequent occupation. The question needs to be asked, how significant will it be if Saddam, in the face of a rigorous, intrusive, aggressive inspections program, does manage to preserve a WMD cache and a hindered capability to produce additional arms? To answer that query, one must address the issue Powell ducked at the United Nations: is Saddam a threat to the United States, its interests, or its allies?

Not a potential threat, but an actual threat warranting a full smackdown, with or without a UN green-light. There are plenty of potential threats in the region. Iran and Syria both have nasty weapons and the governments of each have histories of hobnobbing with terrorists to whom they could slip chemical weapons. Why does Saddam deserve all the attention? Last October, CIA chief George Tenet–who sat behind Powell at the UN–sent a letter to the Senate intelligence committee that reported CIA analysts had concluded Saddam was unlikely to mount a terrorist attack against the United States, unless he felt threatened by Washington. Days ago, a CIA official told The New York Times that the agency had not altered this judgment. At the United Nations, Powell did not offer a compelling argument that Iraq poses an immediate and direct threat. (In fact, during his State of the Union speech, Bush implicitly acknowledged that Saddam does not present a right-now danger when he said, “ if this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions…would come too late.”) Sure, Powell painted a grim portrait of a brutal regime that might still possess usable chemical and biological weapons and that may well be angling to create a nuclear weapon (apparently without yet getting too close). But in the absence of firm evidence that Saddam does maintain a deployable WMD arsenal and has a reason and ability to use it, why send in the Marines now?

From the Bush administration’s perspective, there are two replies. One is, who knows what will happen if we wait? (Tough to argue with that.) The other is, we cannot dilly-dally because Saddam is (or could be) working with al Qaeda to hit the United States, and since he probably has some awful weapons at his disposal, he could pass WMD to the terrorists tomorrow. To bring the point–and the threat–home, Powell maintained that a “sinister nexus” exists between Iraq and Osama bin Laden’s network. After all, if Saddam and al Qaeda are truly in league, that would be reason to be more concerned about whatever weapons he might have or be seeking–and reason to consider action that could result in a 100-percent WMD-free Iraq (or, at least, a Saddam-free Iraq). If Saddam were enabling al Qaeda, that would place him in the Taliban category. An operational link between Osama bin Laden and the Baghdad Butcher, depending on its nature, could be a casus belli.

The Bush administration has been harping on the al Qaeda-Iraq connection for over a year without nailing it. (Remember the supposed meeting between the 9/11 mastermind and an Iraqi intelligence official? The White House eventually had to let that one go.) Listening to Powell, I thought, finally, they have produced proof. “Iraq today,” he said, “harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants.” Zarqawi, Powell noted, had overseen a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan specializing in poisons and that “when our coalition ousted the Taliban, the Zarqawi network helped establish another poison and explosives training center camp…in northeastern Iraq.” He maintained the Zarqawi network was teaching its operatives how to produce ricin–a pinch of it will kill you–and other poisons.

This sounded like damning material. Powell’s slide show even included a picture of the Zarqawi camp. But when one looks at the transcript of Powell’s remarks, the need for more information becomes apparent. He did acknowledge that the camp is in “northern Kurdish areas outside Saddam Hussein’s controlled Iraq.” (Should we declare war on the Kurds, then?) “But,” he added, “Baghdad has an agent in the most senior levels of the radical organization, Ansar al-Islam, that controls this corner of Iraq. In 2000, this agent offered al Qaeda safe haven in the region.” What sort of agent is this? Is the fellow actually a representative of Saddam Hussein? Or is he someone who interacts with the Iraqi regime but has an agenda of his own? (For what it’s worth, the leader of Ansar al-Islam has denied any connection to Baghdad.)

Powell also reported that Zarqawi–who has been linked to the murder of a US Agency for International Development official in Jordan last October–received medical treatment in Baghdad last spring and stayed there for two months, and that his network has “been operating freely in the capital for more than eight months.” Is Iraq providing the Zarqawi network assistance and support, permitting it to operate there? Powell suggested this was the case. He said that “last year, an al Qaeda associate bragged that the situation in Iraq was, quote, ‘good,’ that Baghdad could be transited quickly.” But the same might be said by a terrorist of Kuala Lumpur. The Washington Post reported on February 5, “US intelligence officials have said up to now that they had no direct evidence that Zarqawi met with Iraqi leaders.” If Powell wants to bomb, invade, and occupy Iraq because of heinous activity conducted by Zarqawi from a Baghdad office, he ought to produce more evidence. In June, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused Iran of offering “a haven for some terrorists leaving Afghanistan,” and US officials have cited Zarqawi as one of the individuals allowed to stay in Iran. Washington did not choose to attack Iran over this.

Powell also revealed that Washington asked a “friendly security service to approach Baghdad about extraditing Zarqawi,” and Iraq did not move to apprehend him. The “friendly service” apparently belonged to Jordan, and when this occurred, according to the Post, Zarqawi left the country and “US intelligence does not know where he went.”

Zarqawi is bad news. Investigators in England have reportedly said he appears to be connected to suspected terrorists arrested in London for allegedly developing biological weapons such as ricin. But is Iraq still “harboring” Zarqawi and his associates? Has he set up shop elsewhere? Powell needs to show that an invasion of Iraq at this point would neutralize the threat that comes from Zarqawi or others like him. Powell did assert there were other ties between al Qaeda, noting that in the 1990s Iraqi intelligence officials met with al Qaeda and even at one point (according to an unnamed al Qaeda source) hammered out an agreement under which al Qaeda would no longer support activities against Baghdad. But contacts are not partnerships. Did no other Arab intelligence service have contact with al Qaeda operatives? Powell did claim that one of Saddam’s former intelligence chiefs in Europe said that in the mid-1990s Iraqi intelligence personnel provided document-forgery training to al Qaeda. Is this as far as Iraq went in actually helping al Qaeda?

Asuming all his assertions are true, Powell has provided cause to be concerned about an al Qaeda-Iraq alliance. But is the picture so clear that conquest and occupation is the only option? Does the United States want to assume control of a country because there were contacts between its security services and al Qaeda several years ago? But here’s the first question that struck me after Powell’s presentation: why hasn’t the United States bombed the so-called Zarqawi camp shown in the slide? The administration obviously knows where it is, and Powell spoke of it in the present tense. If it is an outpost of chemical weapons and explosives development for al Qaeda, why not take it out, especially since it is situated within a part of Iraq uncontrolled by any national government? The United States has fighter jets patrolling the northern no-fly zone in Iraq. Cruise missiles can easily reach the area. This part of Powell’s briefing reinforced a crucial point: al Qaeda is the pressing danger at the moment. The most direct way to strike al Qaeda would be to hit this camp, rather than invade Iraq. So bombs away, but only for this target–regardless of what the French might say.

[UPDATE: After Powell’s presentation, it seemed that his information on the Iraq-Zarqawi-al Qaeda nexus indeed was slim. The Washington Post interviewed “a number of European officials and U.S. terrorism experts and reported that “Powell’s description” of this link “appeared to have been carefully drawn to imply more than it actually said. ‘You’re left to just hear the nouns, and put them together,’ said Judith S. Yaphe, a senior felow at the National Defense University who worked for 20 years as a a CIA analyst.” The newspaper noted, “A senior administration official with knowledge of the intelligence information said that evidence had not yet established that Baghdad had any operational control over Zarqawi’s netowork, or over any transfer of funds or materiel to it.” And days following Powell’s address, Ansar al Islam allowed reporters to visit the camp that Powell had connected to Zarqawi and described as a poisons and explosives factory. The New York Times‘ C.J.Chivers, one of the journalists permitted into the camp, reported that he and his colleagues “found a wholly unimpressive place–a small and largely undeveloped cluster of buildings that appeared to lack substantial industrial capacity. For example, the structures did not have plumbing and had only the limited electricity supplied by a generator.” The State Department stuck by Powell’s description. But could it be that the reason the United States has not bombed this camp is that it’s not worth bombing? ]

Powell, for his purposes, made good use of the material he had. He demonstrated that Saddam was defying the United Nations. He described patterns of behavior that would allow a reasonable person to assume that Iraq has been trying to hide some kinds of chemical and biological weapons. But he shared no hard data confirming Iraq has these evil goods in dangerous supplies. (He did note that four defectors have said Saddam has developed mobile bio-weapons labs in trucks that cannot be easily detected. Defector testimony is traditionally iffy, but this claim deserves further investigation.) Powell suggested but did not substantiate the existence of an al Qaeda-Iraq collaboration. He supplied much to worry about, without proving conquest is the only answer. Such a presentation should have been the start of a debate over what to do, rather than the initiation of an endgame that seems predetermined.