On February 5, 2003, in a much-lauded presentation before the United Nations, Colin Powell presented evidence of Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the need to go to war to destroy them. But, as Greg Mitchell wrote in a devastating summary of media coverage in Editor and Publisher last fall, “the Powell charade was the turning point in the march to war, and the media, in almost universally declaring that he had ‘made the case’ fell for it hook, line and sinker, thereby making an invasion inevitable.”

At the time, Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote that, far from making the case for war, Powell had offered “little new information or proof of the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There was no smoking gun. Instead, nearly all of the evidence was largely circumstantial or speculative. “

This editorial, originally published in the February 6, 2003 USA Today, is available below.


As international and domestic doubts and opposition to war grow, Secretary of State Colin Powell was dispatched to the United Nations to make the Bush administration’s case for pre-emptive war against Iraq. The good soldier’s message is likely to carry enormous weight in shaping public opinion. But he failed to make a compelling case.

Powell’s multimedia presentation contained many specific allegations but little new information or proof of the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There was no smoking gun. Instead, nearly all of the evidence was largely circumstantial or speculative. (Indeed, hours before Powell spoke, UN weapons inspections chief Hans Blix denied or discounted four claims central to Powell’s indictment.) Minor violations were offered to justify a major war. And evidence of Iraq’s links to al-Qaeda was played up despite CIA and FBI officials’ charges that evidence is fragmentary and inconclusive and that the administration is exaggerating information to make a political case for war.

To justify UN Security Council authorization for war, the administration would need to show that Iraq’s brutal dictatorship poses such a serious and immediate threat to US security and world peace that it must be overthrown by force. It has failed to do that. Containment and robust inspections have worked in the past and can in the future.

Any benefits of going to war to remove Saddam Hussein are outweighed by the possible unintended consequences of fueling anti-Americanism in the Islamic world; undermining the global fight against terrorism; increasing terrorism at home; helping Al Qaeda win more recruits, destabilizing Pakistan, Turkey and other countries in the region; and risking the lives of US and other troops and Iraqi civilians. Furthermore, the moral, political and economic costs of a likely postwar occupation would mean more spending on war and less on homeland security and unmet domestic needs.

The fact that Iraq is not yet fully cooperating with UN inspectors should not be the basis for war. Even evidence of Iraqi violations of UN resolution 1441 or the original disarmament/sanctions in Resolution 687 does not represent a casus belli. The sane course is to strengthen the inspection teams and give them more resources, more reliable intelligence and time to disarm Iraq. If Washington bullies other Security Council members into acquiescing in an American war, the council’s legitimacy will forever be eroded, having become an instrument of a war-hungry administration and no longer an instrument of the rule of law.

Iraq poses no clear or present danger to the international community or to the United States, the most powerful nation in modern history. At a time when America needs global cooperation in the fight against stateless terrorism, President Bush undermines alliances and offers imperial arrogance. Pre-emptive war against Iraq–or any nation–lacks legitimacy, morality and sense.