Political calculus

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(Host) Commentator Barrie Dunsmore reflects on Secretary of State Powell’s recent statements concerning weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and what factors make up “the political calculus.”

(Dunsmore) One year ago, I wrote a commentary in which I supported what then appeared to be the inevitable invasion of Iraq. I did so very reluctantly. I had previously spoken out against such a war, believing that the potential consequences would outweigh the benefits.

But one man had turned me around. In his presentation to the United Nations a year ago this month, Secretary of State Colin Powell persuaded me that because of his growing stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein was an immediate threat to this country.

In the course of a 30-year career of dealing with people at presidential and cabinet levels in both parties, I have a highly developed sense of skepticism. Official pronouncements are usually self- serving and very often turn out to be wrong.

But, for me, Colin Powell was a different case. I covered and came to respect him when he was at the White House and the Pentagon. Later when I was at Harvard writing a study about live television coverage of war, Powell was very helpful in giving me an unvarnished view of how the military really felt about this issue.

In September 2002, I learned that Powell was secretly urging former high officials in Bush-the-father’s cabinet, to speak out against a pre-emptive war against Iraq. At least two of them, former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger and former National Security advisor Brent Skowcroft subsequently did just that.

Against this background, I was confident that Powell could be trusted to resist an unnecessary war. And so, when he reversed course and made the case for war at the United Nations, I believed him. So did many others who shared my concerns.

In short, we were persuaded to support the war, because we believed that the United States was directly threatened by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. We didn’t support the war because Saddam was a very bad man. We’ve known that for years.

Nor did we want a war because Saddam had used such weapons against his own people. Actually, in March of 1988, I went to Southeastern Turkey to the border with Iraq after Saddam had used poisoned gas to kill thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the town of Halabja. I saw and talked to many survivors, including children with open blisters covering their bodies, who were victims of the worst chemical weapons attack anywhere since World War I.

And what was the Reagan-Bush administration’s response? Well in 1988 Saddam Hussein was at war with Iran and the U.S. was helping him with military supplies and intelligence. After Halabja? It continued to do so.

Secretary of State Powell told the Washington Post last week that had he known there were no stockpiles of weapons he is not sure he would have recommended going to war. In his words, “the absence of a stockpile changes the political calculus.”

It sure does. Now more than half the country feels deceived. I often wonder if Powell does too.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.

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