Diplomacy As Theater

carousel - Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, on "Face the Nation," October 18, 2009.
CBS
Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
At the United Nations Security Council Wednesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell masterfully choreographed an accessible, reasoned and relentless assault on Iraq and its role in befriending terrorists and producing and hiding weapons of mass destruction.

Powell was blunt but conversational; forceful but under control. He repeatedly emphasized that his case was based upon "facts" not "assertions." And he wove together in a seamless analytical presentation damning audio excerpts of Iraqi officials, satellite photography, real-time spy videotape, animated diagrams and material from "human sources."

The Secretary's multimedia presentation made U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson's presentation to the Council during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis look like a first-grade art project. Don't believe me, Powell implicitly asked his colleagues, Then believe your own eyes and ears. Think we are exaggerating when we say Iraq is not complying with its obligations under U.N. Resolution 1441? Let's go to the videotape. Or the audiotape. Or the spy satellite photos. Or the animation. If this truly is a short-attention-span world, and if diplomats (like the rest of us, studies say) appreciated seeing visual proof of what they've just heard, the American presentation Wednesday was a perfect fit for its time.

Aware that diplomacy often is theatre, Powell even held up a vial of a white powdery substance -- surely not anthrax but he never actually said so -- to make the point that Iraq has never "verifiably accounted for even one teaspoon" of the thousands of pounds of the deadly toxin it once had in its possession. If the attention of Council members had waned by that point, you can bet the diplomats were jolted back into focus by the sight of that powder. Holding the vial in his right hand while holding the speech in his left, Powell in a single moment dramatically reminded Council members and the rest of the world of the challenge of keeping biological and chemical weapons away from madmen. That's textbook stuff when you want to ensure your audience is keeping its eye on the ball.

No smoking gun? So what. There are perfectly good cases proved all the time upon the foundation of circumstantial evidence; upon the linking together of irrefutable smaller pieces of proof which, taken together, create an unassailable conclusion. That's what Secretary Powell achieved Wednesday.

If he did not prove that Iraq has active weapons of mass destruction, he certainly proved that Iraq is acting like it has weapons of mass destruction. If he did not prove that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are best buddies, he certainly proved that Iraq has long-held contacts to terrorists and the will to utilize them. If he did not prove that a chemical or biological attack against the West is imminent, he certainly proved that it is increasingly possible. If he did not lay upon the Security Council's table a slam dunk case on the merits, he certainly generated enough proof of Iraq's procedural failures with respect to U.N. Resolution 1441 to make even America's most hesitant allies think twice before waiting much longer to confront Hussein.

Without a signed confession by an Iraqi official, and without a photograph of a smiling Iraqi posed with a weapon of mass destruction, Powell otherwise presented a compelling case that Iraq simply isn't coming close to living up to its international obligations. Is that enough to lead the United Nations by the nose into another resolution or even the use of force? I have no idea. Is it enough to clear away the diplomatic and political cover some of our allies have been hiding behind in the name of going slow on Iraq? Surely. Facts are stubborn things, lawyers and judges and politicians always say, and now America has given the world some damming facts about Iraq that cannot be fairly blown off by either our friends or our foes.

Obviously, America and her allies have additional classified information about Iraq that could not be publicly disclosed. But what America did disclose today is enough to make any reasonable, objective observer turn around and say to Iraq and her allies: "Yeah, what about that?" What about the incriminating audio intercepts that show Iraqi officials hiding something? What about the missile sites? What about the mobile chemical vehicles? What about the compounds? What about Iraq and his coddling of terrorists? There no longer ought to be a question of whether Iraq is complying with U.N. Resolution 1441. The only open question ought to be what the Security Council is willing to do about Iraq's failure to comply.

I don't know how the United Nations will react to Secretary Powell's dramatic speech. I bet no one really does. But if the Security Council now does nothing in the wake of Wednesday's artful presentation, we will be reminded once again that reality at the United Nations depends much more on politics and diplomacy, self-interest and self-reliance, than it does on the truth.

And I suppose in an odd way that, alone, would make this a productive day for America as it tries to rally the community of nations against a regime that clearly, undisputedly, knows more than it is telling the rest of us about its danger to the world.

By Andrew Cohen

  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.