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What Is Colin Powell Up To?

Authors: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, and Ivo H. Daalder
February 25, 2002
NRC Handelsblad

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A few weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was downplaying talk of forcibly removing Saddam Hussein from power. "I never saw a plan that was going to take him out," he told the New York Times. "Iraq isn't going anywhere. It's in a fairly weakened state. It's doing some things we don't like. We'll continue to contain it."

But ever since President Bush's "axis of evil" speech, Powell has not stopped talking about changing Iraq's regime— unilaterally if necessary. Last week, he told the Financial Times that "Iraq would be better served with a different leadership— with a different regime." And he told Congress that "there may be times that we have to act alone. We can't have our national interest constrained by the views of the coalition."

Powell's about-face has alarmed many Europeans, who have regarded him as their best counter to the administration's unilateralist instincts. They care little whether he has had a genuine change of heart or is simply acknowledging that he has lost the internal debate on Iraq. What counts is that Washington now appears unified in its commitment to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Hence the torrent of recent complaints by Powell's European counterparts about an "absolutist" and "simplistic" U.S. foreign policy.

But Europe is misreading Powell— and the state of play in the administration. The secretary of state has not experienced a personal epiphany on Iraq, nor has he surrendered to the administration's hawks. He is what he always has been—a savvy bureaucratic operator who embraced Bush's tough rhetoric because he knew he had no choice. Anything else would have ruined his credibility with the president, and guaranteed that hard-liners would prevail on the substance as well as the tone of U.S. policy toward Iraq.

Yet in embracing the president's tough talk, Powell has softened it in key ways. While endorsing regime change, he has stressed that this has been Washington's goal since 1998. He has noted that there are many ways, including revitalized sanctions, to topple Hussein. And although he has not ruled out military force, he has emphasized that Bush "does not have a recommendation before him that would involve an armed conflict tomorrow." In short, the new Powell is no different than the old Powell.

So what is he up to on Iraq? His strategy hinges on exploiting the essential but misunderstood thrust of the "axis of evil" speech. Bush did not, as many have concluded, pledge to change the Iraqi, Iranian, and North Korean regimes by force. He only committed Washington to stopping their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, Bush was explicitly about what alarmed him: "By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger."

Administration hard-liners insist that only regime change can stop these programs. Agreements, even ones that provide for unfettered inspections, are merely obstacles for unscrupulous rulers to circumvent.

Powell thinks otherwise. In the case of Iraq, he thinks he can use the threat of regime change to strip Baghdad of its weapons of mass destruction. He wants to send Saddam a simple message: get rid of your weapons or we will get rid of you.

To make this strategy work, Powell must overcome two challenges. First, he must convince other major powers to join Washington in issuing an ultimatum to Baghdad— let UN weapons inspectors back in, and allow them to do their job, or face war. If the international community is united in making this demand, Saddam has good reason to comply. But if he faces a divided international community— or one content with token inspections— he will be emboldened rather than intimidated.

Powell faces a tough job selling this strategy in Europe and elsewhere, not the least because of his second challenge— persuading the president to forego regime change if Iraq submits to effective inspections. Administration hard-liners will push for regime change regardless of what Baghdad does. Powell's strongest card here is the president's own words. Bush has been saying since last November that Iraq must accept weapons inspectors. If other major powers decide to help make this happen, he must take yes for answer.

Powell's strategy is ironic. He represents a unilateralist administration but he is offering Europe a quintessentially multilateralist strategy. Whether Europe will find this multilateralism to its liking is an open question. But if it says no, it ensure that Washington travels down the very unilateralist path Europe has repeatedly condemned.

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