Robert Fisk / The Independent – 2005-10-12 08:43:03
(October 3, 2005) — The 5th of February 2003 was a snow-blasted day in New York, the steam whirling out of the road covers, the US secret servicemen — helpfully wearing jackets with “Secret Service” printed on them — hugging themselves outside the fustian, asbestos-packed UN headquarters on the East River.
Exhausted though I was after travelling thousands of miles around the United States, the idea of watching Secretary of State Colin Powell — or General Powell, as he was now being reverently redubbed in some American newspapers — make his last pitch for war before the Security Council was an experience not to be missed.
In a few days, I would be in Baghdad to watch the start of this frivolous, demented conflict. Powell’s appearance at the Security Council was the essential prologue to the tragedy – or tragicomedy if one could contain one’s anger – the appearance of the Attendant Lord who would explain the story of the drama, the Horatio to the increasingly unstable Hamlet in the White House.
There was an almost macabre opening to the play when General Powell arrived at the Security Council, cheek-kissing the delegates and winding his great arms around them. CIA director George Tenet stood behind Powell, chunky, aggressive but obedient, just a little bit lip-biting, an Edward G Robinson who must have convinced himself that the more dubious of his information was buried beneath an adequate depth of moral fury and fear to be safely concealed.
Just like Bush’s appearance at the General Assembly the previous September, you needed to be in the Security Council to see what the television cameras missed. There was a wonderful moment when the little British home secretary Jack Straw entered the chamber through the far right-hand door in a massive power suit, his double-breasted jacket apparently wrapping itself twice around Britain’s most famous ex-Trot.
He stood for a moment with a kind of semi-benign smile on his uplifted face, his nose in the air as if sniffing for power. Then he saw Powell and his smile opened like an umbrella as his small feet, scuttling beneath him, propelled him across the stage and into the arms of Powell for his big American hug.
You might have thought that the whole chamber, with its toothy smiles and constant handshakes, contained a room full of men celebrating peace rather than war. Alas, not so. These elegantly dressed statesmen were constructing the framework that would allow them to kill quite a lot of people — some of them Saddam’s little monsters no doubt, but most of them innocent. When Powell rose to give his terror-talk, he did so with a slow athleticism, the world-weary warrior whose patience had at last reached its end.
But it was an old movie. I should have guessed. Sources, foreign intelligence sources, “our sources”, defectors, sources, sources, sources. Ah, to be so well-sourced when you have already taken the decision to go to war. The Powell presentation sounded like one of those government-inspired reports on the front page of The New York Times — where it was, of course, treated with due reverence next day. It was a bit like heating up old soup. Hadn’t we heard most of this stuff before? Should one trust the man? General Powell, I mean, not Saddam.
Certainly we didn’t trust Saddam, but Powell’s speech was a mixture of awesomely funny recordings of Iraqi Republican Guard telephone intercepts à la Samuel Beckett that just might have been some terrifying proof that Saddam really was conning the UN inspectors again, and ancient material on the Monster of Baghdad’s all too well known record of beastliness.
If only we could have heard the Arabic for the State Department’s translation of “OK, buddy” — “Consider it done, sir” — this from the Republican Guard’s “Captain Ibrahim”, for heaven’s sake. The dinky illustrations of mobile Iraqi bio-labs whose lorries and railway trucks were in such perfect condition suggested the Pentagon didn’t have much idea of the dilapidated state of Saddam’s railway system, let alone his army.
It was when we went back to Halabja and human rights abuses and all Saddam’s indubitable sins, as recorded by the discredited Unscom team, that we started eating the old soup again.
Jack Straw may have thought all this “the most powerful and authoritative case” for war — his ill-considered opinion afterwards — but when we were forced to listen to the Iraqi officer corps communicating by phone “Yeah”, “Yeah” , “Yeah?”, “Yeah . . .” — it was impossible not to ask oneself if Colin Powell had really considered the effect this would have on the outside world.
Extracted from The Great War for Civilisation: the Conquest of the Middle East by Robert Fisk, published by 4th Estate on 3 October, £25. To buy the book at the special price of £22.50, including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897, or visit www.independent booksdirect.co.uk
• Read more exclusive extracts from The Great War for Civilisation all this week in The Independent
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.