UNITED NATIONS, Feb. 5 (UPI) — “Did Secretary Powell change your mind?” a reporter asked French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin following Powell’s dramatic revelations to the U.N. Security Council on Saddam Hussein’s secret stockpile of weapons of mass destruction.
It was, of course, the day’s $64 question — to which Villepin gave the 64 Euro answer. “There are a lot of indications, and suspicions, and a lot of information,” he said, with his usual expressive shrug. “We can compare it with what we know. We cannot base our decisions on suspicion — only on facts.”
Villepin’s reply was typical of the public reaction of most of the 14 foreign ministers who had listened to his 76-minute catalog of Saddam’s deceit, and worse the great danger it represents, the great danger embellished with surveillance photographs, declassified statements, and intercepted telephone conversations, with sub-titles.
Powell’s delivery was typically low-key, measured, letting the information — some of which included such gory details as the fact that Saddam had tested biological weapons on death row prisoners — make its own case.
The council representatives listened in silence, and then each one spoke for 10 minutes, with the five permanent members who have veto power (Britain, China, France, Russia, and United States) speaking first.
Some opened by thanking Powell for his revelations, speaking with the same polite restraint as if the secretary had just read them a bus timetable. And yet these 13 men and two women were locked in a dispute over whether or not to go to war.
By the end of the session, Britain, Spain, Bulgaria, and Chile had declared their support for the Bush administration’s hard line position, with Straw calling Powell’s report “a most powerful and authoritative case.”
Whatever Powell felt about the collective reaction, the genial smile stayed on for the rest of the day as he traipsed from one bilateral meeting to another with the other foreign ministers. Asked how he felt about the council’s response, Powell said, “I think I made a statement today that will be considered by many and will be the subject of discussion, and we’ll see what will happen when the chief inspectors visit Baghdad this weekend.”
In reality, the Bush administration can hardly have expected governments to declare a change of mind at a public session of the Security Council. Observers at the United Nations felt that with time — and a continued strategy of obstruction by the Iraqis — some governments might move closer to the American position.
The response might have been stronger if more of Powell’s surprise revelations had been either surprising or revealing to Security Council members. A U.S. official said Wednesday that the U.N. inspectors already were in possession of information on which they could have taken action, but will not have had some of the details that strengthened the U.S. case.
He declined to say when the intelligence had been passed on to the world organization; and the inspectors may not have had time to follow up on what they had been given. But diplomats said it will certainly form the basis of next weekend’s visit to Baghdad by top U.N. inspector Hans Blix.
But Powell was addressing more than one audience. His primary audience was the larger one of the U.S. public, and in a wider sense the largely skeptical world public.
In that sense Powell’s appearance before the Security Council was part theater, part public diplomacy, carefully staged by the United States. Powell, for example, insisted on the foreign ministers attending the session and not the permanent representatives, and all but Syria and Guinea obliged.
The U.S. also insisted on an open session, when a closed session would have produced a more frank discussion. Washington also ruled out a question-and-answer period. Instead, Powell was scheduled to have brief one-on-ones, diplomatically called bilaterals, with each of the 15 ministers, which in many cases seemed to be little more than a photo-op.
But beneath the smooth grey-suited choreography there was a tension unusual for the U.N.
Corridor diplomacy is an important element of U.N. coverage. Officials who are normally as silent as cloistered nuns become as chatty as bad television presenters. On Wednesday, delegates developed severe cases of myopia, failing to notice scores of chattering reporters lying in wait, and rushed to their limos.