Colin Powell's Vanishing Credibility
Jude Wanniski
June 20, 2004


Memo To: Tim Russert, Meet the Press
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Your Powell interview

It has been a week since I watched you interview Secretary of State Colin Powell on Meet the Press June 13, but I did want to calm down before I wrote some complaints in this space. I think you know I almost never miss your show and that I admire you greatly for your willingness to tackle sacred cows, but I think you came up short with Powell, perhaps because he has been so lionized of late. He no longer deserves any lionizing. Here are excerpts from the show, with my insertions added almost as if I were on the show.

Meet the Press (NBC News)

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to the situation in Iraq and discussions the president and you have had with leaders of European nations. This is how Charles Kupchan, who works for the Council on Foreign Relations, put it the other day. "No WMD, no link to al-Qaeda, to progress on the [Israeli-Palestinian] peace process--the region has been essentially stirred up, not tamed, and al-Qaeda recruitment has picked up. So [Europeans] generally feel that their assessment of the war going into the conflict was accurate."

SEC'Y POWELL: Well, there's also no Saddam Hussein. There is no dictatorial regime. There is a new Iraqi interim government that is about to take over. There is a new U.N. resolution that was approved unanimously that approves the way going forward, and so while we do have challenges ahead--and the principle challenge is one of security, stopping these attacks, stopping this insurgency in Iraq, and once we can get that security situation under control, the combination of our troops, coalition troops and Iraqi forces being built up, then you will see reconstruction take off. You will see a better life for the Iraqi people being created. You will see elections. You will see a new constitution, and you will see something far better than the regime that is no longer there.

WANNISKI: There are Iraqis who are better off without Saddam Hussein and the status quo ante but the number only includes those who are still alive and have their families intact. There have been at least 16,000 Iraqi civilians killed since the war began with an estimate of one anti-Saddam political party estimating 36,000. The U.S. military estimated between 40,000 and 60,000 Iraqi soldiers and militiamen killed in the war, according to numbers cited in Bob Woodward’s new book. It also should not be forgotten that the civilian population lived under very poor conditions prior to the war only because the UN Security Council kept an economic embargo on Iraq for 12 years with the argument that for all that time Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction – which we now know was not true. Because of the embargo, the U.N. itself estimated that more than a million civilians died, half of them children and elderly, primarily because of diseases resulting from the dictatorial regime’s inability to import chemicals need to purify water and sewer systems. Those who are still alive will be better off if everything goes well as Secretary Powell indicates, but they would have been much better off if the UN inspectors completed their work and the embargo was lifted without the war….

MR. RUSSERT: The cost of the war--this was on the Associated Press wire the other day. "Cheap gas from the war only for Iraqis, not Americans. While Americans are shelling out record prices for fuel, Iraqis pay 5 cents a gallon for gasoline, a benefit of hundreds of millions of dollar subsidies bankrolled by American taxpayers. A three-month supply costs American taxpayers more than $500 million, not including the cost of military escorts to fend off attacks."

SEC'Y POWELL: This is the nature of the economy that we inherited from this regime, a regime that was bankrupting itself by providing these kinds of subsidies for gas, for food, and for other necessities, which they control. It was a way in which they controlled the population. As the new government takes over and as the economy settles down and it becomes more market-based, you will start to see all of these prices start to go up to market level conditions or certainly not at the current subsidized level. Even electricity was free and we have to change all of that as we bring this country along and bring it into the 21st century and into an integrated economic world.

WANNISKI: Iraq was bankrupted by the embargo, which kept the economy at a subsistence level. Iraq could not export its state-owned energy because of the embargo, but it could ease the distress of the economy by “selling energy” at its bare cost of production. Secretary Powell seems unaware of the conditions imposed on Iraq at the conclusion of the Gulf War in 1991.

MR. RUSSERT: But psychologically the American people see their gasoline over $2 a gallon and they see the Iraqis paying a nickel and they say what is this about?

SEC'Y POWELL: Well, what it's about is a broken system that we are trying to fix.

WANNISKI: Tim Russert also has no understanding of why the Iraqi people pay almost nothing for gasoline. There is no one in the government to explain it to him, but he and others in the press corps should have figured this out for themselves. Saddam and his regime could have explained why this has been the case, but they are all under arrest and kept far away from journalists and lawyers.

MR. RUSSERT: We turn over the keys, if you will, on June 30, just two weeks from now, but the American people should not think that it's the end of the violence. It could potentially still be a long, hot, bloody summer.

SEC'Y POWELL: Yes, it could be, and it's long and hot and bloody right now. We see that these people don't want a better life for the Iraqi people, and we're going to have to stay the course and show the kind of determination, patience that we have shown in previous conflicts.

WANNISKI: “These people” of course want a better life for the Iraqi people or they would not have the support of the Iraqi people, 91% of whom view the USA as an “unwelcome occupying power." Secretary Powell sounds more like a General -- with the perspective of a military man -- than a diplomat -- who must put himself in the shoes of the other side.

MR. RUSSERT: [Secretary Powell]… as you try to oversee our foreign policy, the president oversee the war in Iraq, this is the Gallup poll about U.S. attitudes on war. Whether the war was just, World War II, overwhelmingly, 90 percent to 7 percent; Iraq, 49 to 49. How much does that affect your ability to conduct policy?

SEC'Y POWELL: It makes it more difficult because we have to explain to the American people and explain to the world why it was a just war and what it's all about and what we're trying to accomplish. And when you have difficult situations, as we're having now with officials being assassinated and bombs going off, people see this on television, they begin to question. And we have to keep reinforcing to the American people and to the rest of the world why this was, one, a just war, why it makes sense for us to stay the course and keep reminding people that a very tyrannical, terrible regime that filled mass graves, that did terrible things to its own people and that was a destabilizing influence in the region is gone, and let's not forget that. They are gone….

WANNISKI: General Powell has been so disoriented by the disinformation fed to him by Iraqi exiles who promised that weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al Qaeda would be found that he does not realize the information about “mass graves and “terrible things” Saddam did were supplied by the same exiles. I do hope Mr. Powell realizes that while quite a few graves have been found, none of the mass graves that would prove “genocide” have been located. The press corps, including Tim Russert, has still not taken this into account, but it is one of the facts that will further embarrass the administration, and the press corps.

MR. RUSSERT: Some observers, Mr. Secretary, will say the primary rationale for the war, weapons of mass destruction, have not been found; we were supposed to be greeted as liberators, which is not the case; that a lot more than just the 130,000 troops are truly necessary; that General Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, who said we needed hundreds of thousands, was probably more correct. Why shouldn't people say that this war has been mismanaged from the very beginning?

SEC'Y POWELL: Well, it's succeeded in its principal objective of eliminating this regime and the intention and capability that this regime had to have weapons of mass destruction. Even though we haven't found actual stockpiles, we now don't have to worry about that intention or capability anymore. It's gone….

WANNISKI: This may be the first time Mr. Powell has identified the government’s “principal objective” as being “regime change” and not the “elimination” of its weapons of mass destruction. President Bush only had congressional authority to war with Iraq if he could assure the Congress that the UN inspections had failed. Mr. Powell surely knows President Bush gave these formal assurances to the Congress on the eve of the war even though the UN inspectors indicated Iraq was cooperating and could be cleared of all WMD questions in two months. Tim Russert seems unaware of this time sequence.

MR. RUSSERT: When you look at the CIA information on the weapons of mass destruction, former President Clinton said Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, as well as current President Bush. The U.N. inspectors. The Russian, French and German intelligence agencies said he had weapons of mass destruction. What happened? How could there have been such a colossal intelligence failure?

SEC'Y POWELL: Well, maybe because what we were all looking at was a body of evidence that gave you every reason to believe that he did have weapons of mass destruction. He had the intention. He used them. He stiffed the U.N. for 12 years. He had the infrastructure. He had the capability. The only thing we haven't been able to find are actual current stockpiles of such weapons. Everything else was there. Everything else was there with respect to capability and intention. And any reasonable person looking at this regime, looking at the threat inherent in that intention and capability would have come to the conclusion based on unanswered questions. Remember, the basis for the stockpiles were unanswered questions about what he had had in the past and what happened to it, and some inferential evidence we had with respect to bunkers and other information we had that gave any reasonable person basis to believe that there were stockpiles, in addition to capability and intention. We haven't found those stockpiles. But there's no doubt in my mind that he never lost the intention or the capability. If he'd ever been freed from international inspection or the pressure of the international community and just left alone and we hadn't acted, you would see Saddam Hussein still there still, now developing stockpiles with the freedom to do so.

WANNISKI: The only body of evidence that Saddam had WMD was supplied by the Iraqi exiles who were dismissed as unreliable several years ago by the intelligence agencies. Mr. Powell knows this, but apparently chooses to be a good solider one more time. When he says “If he’d ever been freed from international inspection” he would have done terrible things, Powell is either totally ignorant of the fact that Saddam could NEVER have been freed from international inspections or he is now prepared to out-and-out prevaricate. In either case, it is clear to me that my confidence in Powell’s integrity has now dissolved.