WASHINGTON—In the tough, straightforward manner of the Army general he once was, Secretary of State Colin Powell presented a convincing case that Saddam Hussein possesses biological and chemical weapons, that he is trying to build nuclear weapons, and that he has demonstrated almost an "evil genius" for hiding these efforts from inspectors.
The question that Powell did not attempt to answer directly—one that still reverberates across the globe—is whether all of this, however true, justifies an immediate attack on Iraq.
Does it warrant the risk of large numbers of casualties, of outrage and uprisings in the Muslim world, of renewed terrorist strikes against Americans and American interests around the globe?
Jeffrey Fossedal, a scholar at the Lexington Institute, a public policy center in Washington, put it this way: "Does it justify going to war with Iraq given that there are any number of countries that have weapons of mass destruction that we are not proposing to go to war with?"
For Fossedal, who believes that Saddam is only waiting for the moment to use his weapons, the answer is a definite yes.
But for other people, in the United States and abroad, the answer is still no—or at least unsettled.
"What's the harm with letting the inspectors destroy the biological weapons and weapons of mass destruction now that we know where they are? Why can't we let the inspection process play out?" asked Lawrence J. Korb, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
In 76 minutes of forceful testimony before the U.N. Security Council, Powell made the argument over and over that the United Nations could never determine where all of Saddam's weapons were located because his regime does such an expert job of hiding them.
In one case, as he growled out his words and drummed on the table, Powell presented intelligence evidence that Iraq had placed biological weapons factories on 18 trucks that were almost constantly being moved around the country, which is about the size of California.
How, he asked, could the inspectors find those particular trucks among the thousand of trucks on the roads of Iraq?
Peter Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University, suggested that opinions about war—whether it is justified or not—had hardened on both sides long before Powell spoke.
Feaver said he suspected that few minds were persuaded by the speech.
"What Powell was trying to do was to shift the burden of proof onto the other side—onto opponents of the war," he said. "He wanted to say to them: How do you make sense of this evidence? The evidence itself has been accumulating for a long time."
The Bush administration's political strategy, a senior U.S. official said, is to give the Security Council time to digest the evidence Powell presented. The administration expects Iraq to cooperate a little better with U.N. inspections for a time—but not enough to fulfill Resolution 1441, the previous U.N. document requiring his full cooperation in a disarmament effort.
After chief inspector Hans Blix reports to the Security Council on Feb. 14, the senior official said, the administration will decide its next move. President Bush has said war remains a last resort, but the United States already has enough forces in place in the Middle East to begin an attack.
Among permanent Security Council members, Great Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw gave the strongest endorsement of Powell's presentation, saying he had made "a most powerful and authoritative case" against Saddam.
No matter "how good the inspectors," Straw added, "in a country as big as Iraq they will never be sure of finding all weapons of mass destruction."
American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described the insider reaction of the other permanent members in these terms: France responded as predicted—with strong reservations that Powell had made the case for war. Russia was seen as moving away from outright opposition toward war and may abstain from blocking further U.N. action. China was seen as also leaning toward abstaining.
Polls by news organizations over the last month have shown that Americans, as others, wanted more evidence from the U.S. government to justify the possibility of war.
"What people wanted—and think they were owed—was a detailed comprehensive account of why we should be going to war," said Lee Feinstein, also a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"From that perspective," he said, "the secretary did very well."
Andy Oppenheimer, an expert on weapons of mass destruction for Jane's Information Group, called Powell's presentation "the icing on the cake" in making the case that Iraq not only has weapons of mass destruction but has been keeping them on the run from inspectors.
The question, he said, is "Now what do we do?
"And that is the problem. What justification is there for a war that would be very dangerous This doesn't get rid of al-Qaida."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Fawn Vrazo contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.