Why Colin Powell's Iraq Speech at the U.N. Was So Crucial (and Bad)

What I wrote at the time (2003) proved prescient, unfortunately.

With the death of former Gen. Colin Powell today, many pundits and obit writers are briefly, or at some length, admitting that his reputation was forever tarnished—some might say, destroyed—because he strongly promoted the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, at a critical moment, based on cooked evidence of Saddam’s WMDs. This would pave the way for the death or maiming of tens of thousands of American military and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, mainly civilians. Of course, you might say, he shared the blame with many, from Dick Cheney to Judy Miller and beyond. But my piece below, from that very week in Editor & Publisher (where I served as the editor), indicates why his presentation at the United Nations in the run-up to the war was so pivotal (partly thanks to a fawning media) in easing the way for the invasion.

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This is drawn from my acclaimed book (with a preface by Bruce Springsteen) on Bush and media malpractice on the war, So Wrong for So Long.

The day after Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech before the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday, TV commentators and newspaper editorials, and even many liberal pundits, declared their support for  the Bush administration's hard-line stance on Iraq.   CNN’s Bill Schneider said that “no one” disputed Powell’s findings.   Bob Woodward, asked by Larry King on CNN what happens if we go to war and don’t find any WMD, answered: “I think the chance of that happening is about zero.  There’s just too much there.”

As recently as a week ago -- following weapons inspector Hans Blix's report to the United Nations and the president's State of the Union address -- more than two-thirds of the nation's editorial pages called for the release of more detailed evidence and increased diplomatic maneuvering. The 80-minute presentation by Powell seems to have silenced most of the critics.

Consider the following day-after editorial endorsements, all from sources not always on the side of the White House. As media writer Mark Jurkowitz put it in the Boston Globe, Powell's speech may not have convinced France of the need to topple Saddam but "it seemed to work wonders on opinion makers and editorial shakers in the media universe."

The San Francisco Chronicle called the speech "impressive in its breadth and eloquence." The Denver Post likened Powell to "Marshal Dillon facing down a gunslinger in Dodge City," adding that he had presented "not just one 'smoking gun' but a battery of them." The Tampa Tribune called Powell's case "overwhelming," while The Oregonian in Portland found it "devastating." To The Hartford Courant it was "masterful."

The San Jose Mercury News asserted that Powell made his case "without resorting to exaggeration, a rhetorical tool he didn't need." The San Antonio Express-News called the speech "irrefutable," adding, "only those ready to believe Iraq and assume that the United States would manufacture false evidence against Saddam would not be persuaded by Powell's case."

And what of the two giants of the East? The Washington Post echoed others who found Powell's evidence irrefutable.  An editorial in the paper judged that “it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction. ... Mr. Powell's evidence, including satellite photographs, audio recordings and reports from detainees and other informants, was overwhelming."

Here’s the Post’s Jim Hoagland:  "Colin Powell did more than present the world with a convincing and detailed X-ray of Iraq's secret weapons and terrorism programs yesterday. He also exposed the enduring bad faith of several key members of the U.N. Security Council when it comes to Iraq and its 'web of lies,' in Powell's phrase. ... To continue to say that the Bush administration has not made its case, you must now believe that Colin Powell lied in the most serious statement he will ever make, or was taken in by manufactured evidence. I don't believe that. Today, neither should you."

That paper's liberal columnist, Mary McGrory, wrote that Powell "persuaded me, and I was as tough as France to convince." She even likened the Powell report to the day John Dean "unloaded" on Nixon in the Watergate hearings.   Another liberal at that paper, Richard Cohen, declared that Powell's testimony "had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn't accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool -- or possibly a Frenchman -- could conclude otherwise.”

George Will suggested that Powell's speech would "change all minds open to evidence."
 
The New York Times, meanwhile, hailed Powell's "powerful" and "sober, factual case."  Like many other papers, the Times' coverage on its news pages — in separate stories by Steven Weisman, Michael Gordon and Adam Clymer — also bent over backward to give Powell the benefit of nearly every doubt.  Apparently in thrall to Powell's moderate reputation, no one even mentioned that he was essentially acting as lead prosecutor with every reason to shape, or even create, facts to fit his brief.

Weisman called Powell's evidence "a nearly encyclopedic catalog that reached further than many had expected." He and Clymer both recalled Adlai Stevenson's speech to the U.N. in 1962 exposing Soviet missiles in Cuba.  Gordon closed his piece by asserting that "it will be difficult for skeptics to argue that Washington's case against Iraq is based on groundless suspicions and not intelligence information."

While newspapers unanimously praised Powell and criticized Saddam Hussein, some disagreed over how to act, and when.   A once-tiny hawkish faction has grown to include 15 newspapers.  The Dallas Morning News reflected the sentiment behind calls for quick force: "The U.S. Secretary of State did everything but perform cornea transplants on the countries that still claim to see no reason for forcibly disarming Iraq." Those in the more cautious, but still pro-war, camp generally advocate the forceful overthrow of Hussein while contending that  broad international support  still should be prerequisites for any invasion.  "
     

Greg Mitchell’s book So Wrong For So Long, on the media and the Iraq war, plus a preface by Bruce Springsteen, was recently published in an expanded edition for the first time as an e-book. 

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Greg Mitchell is the author of a dozen books, including the bestseller The Tunnels (on escapes under the Berlin Wall), the current The Beginning or the End (on MGM’s wild atomic bomb movie), and The Campaign of the Century (on Upton Sinclair’s left-wing race for governor of California), which was recently picked by the Wall St. Journal as one of five greatest books ever about an election. His new film, Atomic Cover-up, just had its world premiere and is drawing extraordinary acclaim. For nearly all of the 1970s he was the #2 editor at the legendary Crawdaddy. Later he served as longtime editor of Editor & Publisher magazine. He recently co-produced a film about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

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