I went to the Council on Foreign Relations today, for a "policy
address" (I guess that’s one notch up from a common-or-garden speech)
by deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz. It was obviously part of a concerted
effort by the White House to fight back in the War on Public Opinion: national
security adviser Condoleezza Rice had an almost identical (if shorter) argument
on the New York Times Op-Ed page this morning.
There’s no doubt that the US is losing
momentum in its drive to war in Iraq: Russia, China, Canada, France and
Germany have all now come out as unambiguously opposed. Presidential spokesman
Ari Fleischer’s list of possible supporters seems rather less imposing: Britain,
Italy, Spain, unnamed eastern European nations, and Australia. So with the anti-war
demonstrations reaching Washington in
force last weekend, it was clear that the administration needed a rhetorical
knock-out blow were it to regain the upper hand.
Wolfowitz certainly had a large and important audience for his speech: I was
seated in the overflow room, next to Harold Evans and Tina Brown. But he signally
failed to deliver that knock-out blow.
The main thesis of the Wolfowitz and Rice arguments is that Iraq isn’t really
disarming. Look at South Africa in 1991, they say: there‘s disarmament
for you. Which is all well and good, but does rather leave one waiting for the
other shoe to drop. I think the world can probably agree that Iraq is not South
Africa. But the rest of the Wolfowitz argument is rather more difficult to sign
In Iraq’s hands, says Wolfowitz, weapons of mass destruction are better termed
"weapons of mass terror", a designation which didn’t go down well
with the audience, the vast majority of whom, I’m sure, have read Politics
and the English Language. The renaming recalled the White House’s rather
pathetic attempt to rename suicide bombers as "homicide bombers":
haven’t they learned their lesson?
Actually, Wolfy slipped once, at the end, and had to catch himself –
"weapons of mass d… terror". And his argument for the renaming was
even weaker than the renaming itself: "In the hands of terrorists, what
we often call weapons of mass destruction would be more accurately described
as weapons of mass terror," he said, and then immediately started talking
about "Iraq’s weapons of mass terror". He didn’t even attempt
to demonstrate that Iraq’s WMDs are, or ever will be, "in the hands of
terrorists". He just made a vague hand-waving reference to "the terror
networks to which the Iraqi regime is linked", which could, really, mean
The rest of the speech was not much more persuasive. Once he’d got over his
initial hump of trying to rope Iraq into the War on Terror without any evidence,
Wolfowitz basically rehearsed a lot of the old stories about how Saddam Hussein
is hiding weapons from the UN inspectors. OK, Paul, we believe you there as
But in between the lines of the speech was an astonishing arrogance, which
was both picked up on and amplified in a pathetically short question-and-answer
session following it. In the speech, it’s very hard to work out what is accepted
fact (from UN sources) and what is simply US assertions, based upon intelligence
that they may or may not have but in any case cannot divulge.
The first question came from former director of central intelligence William
Webster. The US obviously had a lot of intelligence, he said: when could it
be shared with the rest of us, so that more of a case for invasion could be
made? Wolfowitz’s answer was unclear, but it sounded as though the answer was,
to all intents and purposes, "after the war is over".
One questioner characterised the tone of the speech as "trust us,
we know things we can’t tell you, but if you knew them you’d be with us too".
Surely one of the fudamental principles of a democratic and free nation, he
asked, is precisely that government shouldn’t, and can’t, be trusted –
hadn’t we learned that in Vietnam? Wolfowitz barely deigned to answer. Who do
you want to trust, he basically said, us or Saddam Hussein? "Neither",
it seemed, was not an option.
He gave a similar non-answer to a woman who tried a slightly different tack.
Surely you’ve shared your intelligence with the French and others, she said:
if it’s so compelling, how come they’re not on board? Wolfowitz’s answer was
breathtaking. France has a misguided but "well-intentioned belief that
the key to preventing war is to persuade us that we mustn’t act," he said.
He was sorry, but there was no persuading to be done over here: if France wanted
to prevent war, it should concentrate its efforts on persuading Iraq to disarm.
(Since we had already been told by both Rice and Wolfowitz himself that their
idea of disarmament was basically to make like South Africa, this didn’t seem
an especially promising tack.)
Wolfowitz is not a particularly good speaker. He peppered both his speech and
his answers to questions with the phrase "time is running out," without
ever clarifying what he meant by the phrase. Maybe he just likes its menacing
tone. He certainly alienated a lot of the audience when he took only five questions,
and didn’t really answer any of them.
In general, the speech seemed designed as an attempt to reframe the debate
over war: to move the crucial question over the UN inspections away from what
they may or may not have found, and towards whether what Iraq is doing counts
as disarmament. But it seems unlikely that either domestic or international
public opinion will rally behind a war which is predicated on the idea that
Iraq hasn’t been as helpful as South Africa was.
With three of the five permanent members of the Security Council now opposing
war, there seems to be no chance that the US is going to attempt to get another
resolution before invading. So the only hope we have that the US will not invade
is that it will start listening to what the rest of the world is saying: a pre-emptive
war would be illegal, would polarise the Arab world against the US, and could
radically destabilise Saudi Arabia, among other possible negative outcomes.
Of course, it would also cause the deaths of thousands of UK, US and Iraqi soldiers,
as well as Iraqi civilians and possibly foreign "human shields". But
based on the behaviour of Wolfowitz today, America is in no mood for listening