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The Question for Powell

in International Herald Tribune, 3 February 2003

The clearest of the many pointed messages delivered to the United States by government and business leaders at the recent Davos talkfest was that support for an attack on Iraq could not be expected without more compelling evidence than has so far been produced. The message seems to have been heard, and we now await with intense anticipation what Colin Powell will tell the United Nations on Wednesday.

But what exactly is the question he should be answering? How should we assess what he tells us? We need to rethink the basics, because the debate has become very confused.

Some are focusing on the technical question: What exactly constitutes a ''material breach'' of Security Council Resolution 1441, and has there yet been one?

Others worry about the procedural question: Is the onus on Saddam Hussein to prove that, as he claims, he has no nuclear, chemical or biological weapon stocks or capability - so that attack on him is justified if nothing more happens within a given time? Or is it rather on the United States or the inspectors to prove that he was lying?

For most, with the United States obviously so determined to act, the only question now is the political one: How much new material will be enough to get the ''old Europe'' doubters and other potential opponents back in the fold, giving UN Security Council legitimacy to whatever Washington decides to do?

While all these questions are important, they are really only second-order ones, and it is more than a little alarming if they are the only ones now being asked. The real question, the first-order one, goes back simply to threat: Is Iraq's present leadership such a threat to international peace and security that it must be overthrown by military force?

If this question can be answered affirmatively, war would be justifiable. There would be a ''just cause'' in international law; the Security Council would be much more likely to give its authority; the huge risks of this war for regional instability and accelerated global terrorism would be much reduced; and the inevitable cost of war in terms of lives lost and misery suffered would be morally more defensible.

But if, in all conscience, the answer is negative, then war on Iraq will lack legality, legitimacy, morality and sense.

There are in international law only two defensible routes to war. One is via Article 51 of the UN Charter, which permits a country - going it alone or with friends, without prior Security Council approval - to defend itself against armed attack, or, by accepted extension, to act preemptively against threatened attack when that attack is imminent.

Some rethinking of the latter criterion is now occurring, stimulated by the latest U.S. National Security Strategy. Maybe it does not make sense, given the very real concern about irresponsible states arming non-state terrorists with weapons of mass destruction, to demand that a threat be imminent before acting in self-defense against it.

A fair point. But if no further limiting criteria are built in, this would open up the Article 51 justification for military action so widely that the whole international order so painstakingly established since 1945 would be grievously undermined.

The proper way to look at the new U.S. doctrine is not to reject it but to add two conditions on which it is silent: The less imminent the threat, the stronger must be the evidence of its reality, and the greater must be the need for authorization of the action by the international community.

The other route to acceptability in international law is a Security Council resolution under Chapter VII of the charter authorizing force in response to a ''threat to international peace and security.'' Legally speaking, any reason or none will do, given agreement that there is such a threat.

In the present context, with so many previous resolutions ignored and the United Nations' own authority at stake, the Security Council may decide that the merest hint of a technical breach of any part of Resolution 1441 is enough to go to war. But that is not especially likely politically, and the integrity and credibility of the council would be much better served if it demanded real evidence of a real threat.

The bottom line is that if it is given such evidence, and it chooses to ignore it, then, as with Kosovo in 1999, the case for America and others to act without Security Council approval is infinitely stronger, and the United Nations (and states like France which treasure its role) will suffer a serious loss of stature.

So what would constitute a clear and compelling answer by Powell to the question posed above?

To establish a threat of such a magnitude as to justify war demands evidence of capability; reasonable grounds for belief as to intent (past behavior and present associations are certainly relevant here); and reasonable grounds for concluding that the threat so identified cannot be contained or deterred or both (absolutely critical when the risks and costs of going to war are as high as they are here).

If the U.S. position is to be persuasive, all these bases, not just the capability issue, have to be credibly covered. For each point, what is critical is that there be analysis on the table which is objectively compelling. The stakes are too high for unsupported conclusions, hints and jumps of faith.

My own long experience as a minister in charge of security services, domestic and international, tells me that when ''source protection'' is invoked as justification for asserting rather than proving something of critical importance, it is often because the intelligence in question, ifnakedly revealed, would not persuade anyone.

Over to you, Mr. Secretary.