Powell's evidence shouldn't mean war.

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Feb. 7 2003 1:02 PM

Whose Smoking Gun?

Powell's evidence shouldn't mean war.

Iraq hawks are troubled by the failure of some Americans to fall in line behind President Bush after Wednesday's impressive performance by Colin Powell. Now that Powell has so clearly shown that Iraq has illegal weapons, they ask, how could anyone argue for continuing United Nations weapons inspections, rather than just fast forwarding to war? Actually, it's not as hard as you'd think.

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Powell did produce what, for my purposes, was a "smoking gun," showing beyond doubt that Iraq has failed to fess up to possession of, at the very least, chemical weapons. If we invade Iraq, few Americans will now claim that we're doing it over trumped up charges. Then again, it isn't the American reaction to an invasion that I'm concerned about. It's the reaction in the Muslim world. Various terrorist groups—and not just al-Qaida—will try to use the war to boost recruiting, and I'd like to make their job as hard as possible.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

In parts of the Muslim world, needless to say, the United States faces credibility problems. So, an American official isn't as convincing as a U.N. official. And, for that matter, a photograph in New York that in theory could have been doctored by anyone with a computer isn't as convincing as tons of chemical weapons sitting in Iraq, being videotaped by the world's press corps while Iraqi officials stammer that the existence of this particular stockpile had slipped their mind.

The hawks' reply is predictable: The world's anti-American Muslims will hate us no matter what, are impervious to any evidence that favors us, and so on. In the case of already ardently anti-American Muslims, there may be something to this claim. But I'm not talking about how these Muslims will react to a war. (I personally doubt that the short-run terrorist blowback will be great.) What I'm mainly talking about is the coming generation—the Muslim teenagers whom terrorists would like to recruit, but who are still a few steps shy of this fork in their road; teenagers whose life course could depend on precisely how deep their sense of injustice is upon seeing videotape of Iraqi civilians killed by American bombs. I have no idea how many teenagers in the Muslim world fit this description, but it's hard to believe that, out of more than a billion Muslims, the number would be trivial.

I'm not arguing against disarmament, or regime change, or forcefully overhauling Iraqi's government and putting it on the path to democracy. I'm arguing about how we achieve these things. (In a recent New York Times op-ed, I contended that all these things can be had by going through the United Nations—yes, complete with France's assent—and might even be had without war.) And I'm saying that even if getting these things entails war, as it probably will, the more undeniable the smoking gun—especially in the eyes of those who mistrust America—the fewer American lives we'll lose in the long run. (Note that my point is unfazed by arguments that successful American wars, as in Afghanistan, are actually a blow to al-Qaida recruiting on balance. Even in that optimistic scenario of net benefit, there will be some Muslims radicalized by war—and the fewer the better.)

It's depressing that, so far as I can tell, none of the many pro-war op-eds written since the Powell speech have acknowledged, even in passing, this simple point: that there are various kinds of "smoking guns"—the kind that convince Americans and America's friends and the kind that convince the various other constituencies on the planet. If there's a single lesson we should have learned from Sept. 11, it's that, like it or not, the court of world opinion matters to America as never before.

After the Powell presentation, the hawkish Washington Post editorial page said, "it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction." Talk about a failure of imagination.

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