Revisiting Colin Powell's UN address that led to war in Iraq

Late secretary of state's chief of staff believes he was exploited by Bush administration

Colin Powell holds up a vial to illustrate Saddam Hussein’s alleged use of anthrax. AFP
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Twenty years ago, Colin Powell caught the world’s attention during an emergency session of the UN Security Council.

As George W Bush's secretary of state, he delivered an address that would go down in history as a prelude to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The war ultimately lasted nine years, claiming hundreds of thousands lives, leaving the country lawless and opening the way for Iran to aggressively pursue regional hegemony.

Congress had already authorised Mr Bush to “use any means necessary” against Iraq.

Taking his seat on the horseshoe table in front of his UN counterparts, he assured the council chamber that “every statement” he would make was “backed up by solid sources”.

“Iraq had already been found guilty of material breach of its obligations, stretching back over 16 previous resolutions and 12 years,” said Mr Powell, a retired four-star general, as he laid out “evidence” of Baghdad's failures to comply with several UN resolutions demanding co-operation with weapons inspectors.

Satellite images, audio recordings and illustrations of supposed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) were displayed to prove that Iraqi officials were purposely evading their obligations and hiding arms.

Mr Powell even held up a tiny vial of white powder to illustrate Saddam Hussein’s alleged use of anthrax.

Watch: Colin Powell makes case for war in Iraq at the UN

Watch: Colin Powell makes case for war in Iraq at the UN

He argued that Washington believed, without a doubt that Hussein, a grave and imminent security threat to the US and the world, was developing nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

Mr Powell died in 2020 due to complications from Covid-19 after cancer treatment.

After the First Gulf War, which broke out in April 1991, the Security Council passed Resolution 687, which banned Iraq from possessing WMDs. In accordance with that resolution, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors destroyed Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programme.

UN weapons inspectors repeatedly checked suspected plants in Iraq and had cameras installed to monitor activity at those sites.

Despite widespread scepticism, the US and its allies were able to use Mr Powell's arguments to secure the support of key Security Council members, including Britain.

Mr Powell's former chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, told The National that he had been selected to address the UN because he was the “only member of the [Bush] administration the American people would believe” and that the general “had poll ratings … barely a point or two below Mother Teresa”.

In the lead-up to the now infamous speech, Mr Powell was “sceptical”.

“They exploited him,” said Mr Wilkerson.

Mr Powell would tell his chief of staff that the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate — the highest-level document produced by intelligence agencies — had informed his UN speech, which officials had assured him was “solid”.

On the eve of the US-led attack in 2003 ordered by Mr Bush, UN inspectors had still not found any chemical or biological weapons by the time they were forced to leave the country.

Evidence of any active WMD programmes were nowhere to be found.

“We didn't think he [Saddam Hussein] was ever going to shed himself of the effort to build WMD. We just didn't know that he didn't have any at that present time,” said Mr Wilkerson.

The “solid intelligence” that Mr Powell had cited proved illusory and was allegedly based on unsubstantiated reports from Iraqi exiles, such as the Iraqi National Congress, a secular opposition group led by Ahmad Chalabi.

Mr Chalabi had gained the trust of senior officials in the Bush administration and convinced them of the necessity of destroying Hussein's Baathist regime.

“We [the US State Department] wanted the United States government to get rid of him but president Bush wouldn't allow it. [Vice president Dick] Cheney wouldn't allow it. They were feeding the Bush administration what they wanted to be fed. Intelligence shaped the policy that took us into war with Iraq,” said Mr Wilkerson.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 marked a significant shift in the way the international community viewed the use of force and set a dangerous moral precedent that continues to affect global politics to this day.

The UN Charter, which was signed in 1945, established the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states, and explicitly prohibited the use of force except in self-defence or with the authorisation of the Security Council.

“They did enormous damage to US credibility at the UN and that legacy still lingers on 20 years later,” Richard Gowan, UN Director at the International Crisis Group, told The National.

“The Bush administration's decision to go to war with Iraq without explicit UN authorisation demonstrated the inability of the Security Council to constrain the major powers,” said Mr Gowan. “And the council has never entirely recovered from this display of weakness.”

It was “the greatest strategic disaster created by America in the 21st century”, Mr Wilkerson said.

“We should have never been a part of it,” he added.

Mr Powell would later regret making the case for the 2003 invasion.

The UN speech, he wrote in his 2012 memoir It Worked for Me, “was by no means my first, but it was one of my most momentous failures, the one with the widest-ranging impact”.

“The event will earn a prominent paragraph in my obituary,” he added.

“To this day, Iran's influence outside its own borders is vastly more than it would have been had Saddam Hussein been still in Iraq. So that's the first huge error and repercussion of the war,” said Mr Wilkerson.

Hussein encouraged the perception that Iraq had WMDs because he was afraid of appearing weak in Iran's eyes and wanted to maintain his ability to suppress large-scale domestic opposition to the regime, noted Mr Wilkerson.

“That was a shrewd but really deep error by Saddam because I think he really didn't want to come clean in a way that would have kept us from entering the country with the military, because if he came totally clean, he would be admitting to Iran and to his own people that he didn't have these vicious weapons. And he didn't want to do that.”

Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion, wrote that after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration felt a “need to let the weight and wrath of the world’s only superpower fall on more evil actors than just Afghanistan’s Taliban regime”.

“No target could have seemed more worthy of being crushed than Iraq’s brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein,” he said. “Sadly, however, the elimination of this tyrant was perhaps the only positive result of the war.”

America invaded Iraq in large part because of the Security Council’s attention, Benny Avni, an American journalist who covered the Security Council’s debate at the time for The New York Sun, told The National.

“The Bush administration's view was that America needed to project power to prevent a repeat of 9/11,” Avni said. “There were already numerous council resolutions on Iraq, which Saddam kept violating.

“That was why the Bush administration focused on WMDs.”

Updated: March 16, 2023, 3:44 PM