Powell on Iraq

It’s obviously the season for major speeches from the Bush administration.

Last Thursday, Paul Wolfowitz gave a very

hawkish address to the Council on Foreign Relations, and tomorrow George

W Bush himself will give his State of the Union address, which Elisabeth Bumiller

says is

"the most historically important State of the Union speech that any [former

White House speechwriter] can remember".

In between, yesterday, we had Colin Powell at Davos. Certainly, when it came

to Iraq, it was hawkish, and that was what was picked up on by the headline

writers. "Powell, in Europe, Nearly Dismisses UN’s Iraq Report," says

the New York Times, with sub-heads reading "Says US Can Fight Alone"

and "He Sees It as Useless to Give More Time to Inspectors". The Wall

Street Journal takes a similar stance: "Tough Message," it leads,

followed with "At Davos, Powell Pushes Back Against Resistance Over Iraq",

and "Secretary of State Says US Deserves Trust of World, But Nation ‘Will

Lead’". Then comes a full-colour list of "Powell’s Punches,"

quotes from his speech:

  • "When we feel strongly about something, we will lead. We will act even

    if others are not prepared to join us."

  • "Multilateralism cannot become an excuse for inaction."
  • "We continue to reserve our sovereign right to take military action

    against Iraq alone or in a coalition of the willing."

This attitude makes sense, in the light of Powell’s position. He has already

been very publicly undermined by France, Germany and Russia, all of whom have

indicated that they would veto any UN Security Council resolution authorising

war on Iraq. At the same time, the White House and the Pentagon are making it

crystal clear that they intend to go to war, with or without the support of

the "Axis

of Weasel".

Powell is generally seen these days as a beleaguered internationalist in the

Bush administration, working alongside Tony Blair in a desperate attempt to

bring the rest of the world in line with what Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush have

already decided they are going to do. But he is also an old soldier, and the

author of the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force. He knows that war is going

to happen, it would seem, and he knows that if you’re going to wage war, you

can’t do it half-heartedly. Hence the speech in Davos, the Iraq portions of

which can basically be summed up as "You don’t like what we’re doing? Well,

screw you, we’re right, you’re wrong, and we’re going to do it anyway".

But what’s this? The WSJ story is continued on page A6, where we see the headline

"At Davos, Powell Tries to Mend Rift with Allies". And although you

won’t see a lot of evidence of that in the Journal’s own story, you will see

it in the speech itself. Most of the speech, it turns out, wasn’t about Iraq

at all. First of all he rattled off a list of places – Afghanistan, Bosnia,

Kosovo, Macedonia, Kuwait, even the whole continents of Africa and Latin America

– where, he said, "we seek nothing for ourselves other than to help

bring about security for people that have already suffered too much". Indeed,

America did the same thing for Europe in the aftermath of World War II, he said.

Then, after the Iraq passage, he moved on to North Korea, and said something

it’s hard to imagine coming out of the mouth of the president: "the United

States has been the world’s biggest donor of humanitarian assistance to North

Korea and we will continue to contribute to their humanitarian requirements

and needs".

He even tried to strike an optimistic note with regard to the Palestinian question,

saying that "the creation of a democratic, viable Palestine is possible

in 2005". (Although seeing as how he asked the impossible from both sides

– a "new and different leadership" for the Palestinians, and

economic aid for them from Israel – I’m not holding my breath.)

And he ended on an internationalist note which would have been boilerplate

in the Clinton years but which is welcome coming from the Bush administration:

We understand full well that whatever we can do, whatever we can do as one

nation, is nothing compared to what we all can do if we unite, if we become

part of a great partnership of freedom-loving nations, nations that are committed

not only to our own development, but nations that are committed to the hungriest,

most desperate people anywhere in the world.

For sure, this kind of grandstanding is not going to change anyone’s mind on

Iraq, and indeed it’s not going to convince anyone that the US is actually committed

to strengthening any kind of international institutions. But it does go down

well with the assorted internationalists at Davos, and does help create a feeling

that although Europe and America might disagree strongly on Iraq, they’re still

ultimately allies, committed to the same ends if not the same means.

That’s something which has been in doubt in recent months. As US imperialism

and unilateralism has expanded, Europe has seen America – and America

has seen itself – as a global hyperpower, a hegemon above international

law, a country with a worldview at odds on many levels with that of Europe.

Robert Kagan’s Power

and Weakness is just one of many essays which have been appearing of

late, trying to examine a phenomenon which Timothy Garton Ash characterises

in the latest New York Review of Books as America’s "Anti-Europeanism".

Whatever else you might say about Powell’s speech in Davos, it was internationalist

in tone, and showed no hint of anti-Europeanism. It took issue with Europe’s

stance on Iraq, but more in the spirit of friendship than enmity. Here’s the

key passage:

Henry Kissinger, decades ago, wrote a book on the Atlantic alliance, and

he called it "The Troubled Partnership". I am told that later Henry

had second doubts about the title when he found that some bookstores were

placing it on the shelf reserved for books about marriage counseling. But

maybe the bookstore owners knew what they were doing, because problems with

some of our friends across the Atlantic go back a long time, more than two

centuries by my count. In fact, one or two of our friends we have been in

marriage counseling with for over 225 years nonstop, and yet the marriage

is intact, remains strong, will weather any differences that come along because

of our mutual shared values.

In the same speech as some of his most hawkish statements to date, then, Colin

Powell went out of his way to try to keep the marriage together. That’s important,

considering that from all their public statements, the likes of Cheney, Rumsfeld

and Wolfowitz would be perfectly happy with a divorce. Let’s see what Bush says

about Europe tomorrow: this really could set the tone for transatlantic relations

for the foreseeable future.

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