Powell’s regret and Erdoğan’s dismay

Powell’s regret and Erdoğan’s dismay

It must have been really “painful” for Colin Powell to sit in front of Barbara Walters of ABC on the night of Sept. 9, 2005 and admit that his involvement in the invasion of Iraq was a permanent “blot” on his record.

As the first African-American to serve as the U.S. Chief of Staff and then Secretary of State, Powell’s regret was mainly because of a speech he delivered to the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003. Hundreds of millions were fixed on their TV screens to watch Powell’s speech live, expecting that the U.S. was going to present evidence on Iraq’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to justify a U.N.-backed multinational military action on Iraq and its ruler Saddam Hussein.

The much talked about evidence was only a set of pictures and animations claiming that there were chemical and biological production laboratories placed in large trucks, moving all the time in order not to be tracked down. 

The U.S. presentation did not get backing from the U.N. Moreover, on March 7, 2003, the U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, with the help of the International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed El Baradei, told the U.N. that they could not find any evidence that Iraq had an arsenal of WMD. Later on it was understood that Naji Sabri, Iraq’s former foreign minister (defected to Americans) told the CIA, while former intelligence chief Tahir Habbush al-Tikriti (defected to British) told MI6, that there were no WMDs possessed by Baghdad. 

Plus, information given by a young Iraqi chemical engineer, Rafed Ahmed Alwan El Janabi, who had asked for asylum from Germany back in 1999 (because of embezzlement charges), were found unsatisfying by German intelligence BND yet were shared with American CIA in the hectic atmosphere of al-Qaeda's 9/11 attacks. That information was not fully reliable for both the CIA and MI6, too. 

But both Bush and his strategic ally Tony Blair of the U.K. decided to rely on this information to start the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003. Al-Janabi confessed in 2011 that he had simply lied about Iraq’s WMD program, as he was after a Green Card. That's why Powell (as an honorable man who I am pleased to have met personally and talked to about the issue later on) was so embarrassed to be put in a position by Bush, to submit those unconvincing materials to the world public opinion, without knowing at the time that they were fabricated in order to justify a war.

The reason was not only the Chekhov rule, which states that if a gun appears onstage it has to be used by the end of the play. It was also the ideological obsessions of Bush’s neo-con administration that led them to neglect the realities in order to justify their principles and theories. A Senate report in 2008 said the Bush administration had “misinterpreted the intelligence and threat from Iraq.”

Perhaps that is why the British Parliament on Aug. 29 turned down a motion by the David Cameron government about getting into military action in Syria. They believe that there is still not convincing evidence to prove that Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons (CW) against his own people to win the two year strong civil war there. Meanwhile, French President François Hollande, who had made statements about his country’s readiness to get involved in military action in Syria, started to put more stress on the need for solid evidence on chemical weapons. There is also uncertainty about who used them, if they were indeed used.

All eyes are on Barack Obama now. As the first African-American president of the U.S., he was elected also by promising to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, and to not get involved in direct military action abroad. He is twice as cautious in checking and double checking the information in order not to face Powell’s regrets in future.

Another lesson from the Afghanistan and Iraq cases shows that getting rid of a dictator will not always bring about a better administration. The country could end up under a worse dictatorship or dragged into a bloodier civil war. There is no guarantee that there will be a better rule in Syria after al-Assad, especially when the al-Qaeda manipulated groups intoxicate the rebels, while Iran-manipulated groups like Hezbollah of Lebanon physically support al-Assad, putting Israel on alert.

On the other hand, there is still the Chekhov rule, and if Obama puts the American gun - the U.S. military buildup in the Eastern Mediterranean - back into its case without firing it, it will somehow harm U.S. deterrence. That will make his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin happy. Not just him, in fact, but also al-Assad, who might take this cautious stance as a green light for a further ruthless campaign against the rebels, including civilians.

The developments put Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in an uneasy situation. Turkey has been pressing for international action against the Syrian government with or without the use of chemical weapons; some 100,000 people have been killed in the civil war so far anyway. On the other hand, Erdoğan wants to avoid voting on another motion in Parliament on Syria, recalling the Iraq experience 10 years ago. On March 1, 2003, Parliament had turned down a motion by his Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government to allowing U.S. troops to use Turkish territory for the invasion of Iraq; even a third of the AK Parti had voted against it. It would also be more difficult for Erdoğan to submit a motion now, after the British vote. So, he would prefer there to be no large-scale war, and for nobody to ask anything from him that would require a motion. 

On the other hand, Erdoğan wants to keep up with his claim of setting the Middle East's political atmosphere and the Syrian case will be a second blow to him after the coup in Egypt; after all, he favored the Muslim Brotherhood in both Syria and Egypt. Obama’s statement putting the CW issue as the target, instead of toppling al-Assad, has already been a source of dismay to the Turkish prime minister.

And there are lessons to draw; lessons for everyone from Powell’s regret, Cameron’s defeat and Obama’s hesitation. In advanced democracies, actors maturely admit their mistakes and try not to repeat them, instead of trying to avoid criticism by putting the blame on others because of everything going wrong.