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Last Updated

10 Feb 2003

Source: Los Angeles Times, February 10, 2003


Not Even the Reputable Powell Could Alter Opinion in Europe

'Those who are against the war are still against it. Those who are for it are for it. Nobody changed their minds,' French journalist says.

By Sebastian Rotella, Times Staff Writer

PARIS -- Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's presentation at the U.N. Security Council last week may be remembered as a moment that crystallized the growing gulf between America and Europe.

Despite their dislike for the Bush administration, Europeans tend to see Powell as a trustworthy leader who combines the toughness of the soldier he was with the prudence of the diplomat he has become. He was the ideal spokesman to make the case against Iraq to a foreign audience.

That makes the public reaction on this side of the Atlantic mostly bad news for a U.S. government hoping for converts to a confrontation with Iraq, which seems increasingly imminent.

"Our callers didn't believe it. They say photos can be changed, evidence can be manipulated," said Christophe Hondelatte of France's RTL radio network, the host of a daily call-in show about current events. "Those who are against the war are still against it. Those who are for it are for it. Nobody changed their minds."

The cause of the transatlantic divide goes beyond Powell's credibility or the strength of the evidence. A trend emerged in interviews, polls and public comment around Europe over the weekend: Even some people who agree that Iraq is hiding weapons of mass destruction from U.N. inspectors are reluctant about going to war soon.

And some Europeans found it unrealistic to expect that a single speech could change their minds about an issue as weighty as war. They suggested that Americans sometimes view complex events through the simplistic prism of television: a one-hour drama in which Perry Mason wins the day with a spectacular closing argument.

The Times examined reactions in France, Russia, Britain and Spain. Those nations are all members of the U.N. Security Council. But France and Russia are resisting a military solution, while Britain and Spain back the tough U.S. policy toward Saddam Hussein.

A survey by the newspaper Le Parisien published here Saturday found that 74% of respondents were not convinced by Powell. The number of opponents to war went from 76% to 77%, after the speech, a statistically insignificant change.

Russian polls after Powell's presentation showed similar results: 68% of Russians surveyed believed the U.S. is motivated by oil or other economic interests in Iraq. Only a quarter saw Iraq as a potential threat to other countries, while nearly twice as many, 46%, said Iraq poses no threat.

In Britain, Washington's partner in the military buildup in the Persian Gulf, a number of those interviewed by The Times said they were struggling with the issue. They said they had tried to listen to Powell with an open mind. But as Prime Minister Tony Blair has learned in tense discussions with voters and his own political party, many Britons remain skeptical.

"My view hasn't changed since Colin Powell's briefing, the reason being that nobody yet has stated a clear military aim of what war is going to achieve," said retired Brig. Christopher Price in London. "If it's to get rid of Saddam, I don't think that's achievable by purely military means. It's politicians that win wars -- soldiers win battles.... I think what Powell set out to do was great, but he hasn't convinced me. We need corroborating evidence."

Reassuring Words

Another ex-soldier, Persian Gulf War veteran Noel Baker, came to the opposite conclusion. It's high time that the U.S. and Britain finish what they started with the Gulf War, said the former corporal, who served in a reconnaissance unit whose mission was to detect mines potentially filled with anthrax.

Powell's words "reassured me that what I think is right," Baker said. "I think we have no choice. In 1991, I can't understand it: We brought the Iraqi forces to their knees ... and cease-fire terms were agreed and in the last 12 years they have managed to break all the terms.... Hostilities should have started again. Instead, we put in inspectors, and we have waited for 12 years."

Elsewhere, Powell had to contend with the perennial obstacles of entrenched ideology and short attention spans. Even well-informed news junkies, Hondelatte said, may not have spent much time analyzing Powell's presentation.

Hondelatte estimated that about a quarter of his listeners, mostly senior citizens, regard Americans with a sense of gratitude and admiration that dates back to World War II. But most listeners are critical of U.S. foreign policy, he said. And widespread, sometimes vicious anti-Americanism makes anything with CIA fingerprints immediately suspect to many. That includes Spanish congressional deputies who condemned Powell's presentation, though they may not actually have heard it because they debated the Iraq issue in parliament at the same time that the secretary of State was speaking at the U.N.

"Naturally, you have to start from a base of rigor and goodwill," said La Vanguardia newspaper of the Spanish city of Barcelona in an editorial. "If, as was insinuated from the speakers' podium of the Spanish Congress, the evidence presented by Powell was manipulated, no reasonable discussion is possible because everything is reduced to a question of faith."

The author was Juan Maria Hernandez Puertolas, the editorial page editor. La Vanguardia, the most important newspaper published in Spain's second-biggest city, speaks for the Catalan middle class: They are conservative economically but hostile to center-right Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's support for Bush. Most Spaniards oppose a war in Iraq, creating a chasm between government and voters on that question, according to polls.

The editorial board put time and effort into its discussion, Puertolas said in an interview. Its members concluded that Powell made a good case that the Iraqi regime has engaged in "clear obstruction."

On the other hand, Puertolas said, the editors felt Powell was less persuasive when he warned Europe of an imminent danger close to home. Powell accused Baghdad of sheltering leaders of a network of Al Qaeda terrorists who have been arrested in the Barcelona area, London and Paris. The suspects underwent training in the separatist Russian republic of Chechnya and in Georgia and their planned attacks included Russian targets, according to investigators.

Europeans, whether cops or average citizens, still don't appear to buy the idea of an Iraq-Al Qaeda alliance. They see an attack on Iraq as a dangerous detour from the international campaign against terrorism.

'Real, Serious Enemies'

"The main threat is not coming from Baghdad," said Marina Lemoutkina, a Russian political scientist. "America has real and serious enemies such as Al Qaeda, which is not directly connected with Iraq."

That view is symptomatic of a big difference between the Bush administration and most European governments and voters. Ever since the Sept. 11 attacks, analysts say, the United States has considered itself at war. Europeans have not.

Even those who think Hussein stands guilty as charged would like to avoid war unless it has broad international approval.

"There are a lot of people like me in the middle: not convinced we should go to war, but knowing something should be done about Saddam Hussein," said Christian White, a British law student. "As far as Colin Powell's report is concerned, I think, why has it come out so late in the day? And why hasn't this all been given to the U.N. inspectors? A lot of us feel we are being pushed inevitably toward a war.... If we [invade Iraq], we must do so with U.N. support."

In contrast to such earnest reflection, much apathy is in evidence among Europeans. Despite Russia's clout on the Security Council and its economic interests in Iraq, the specter of war has caused neither public debate nor protests. A more common concern in Moscow: uncertainty over the potential impact on the U.S. dollar, since most Russians keep their savings in the American currency.

A poll a few days before Powell's speech indicated that half of Russians would support neither side in a war. Only 10% would support the U.S., while 32% would support Iraq.

Konstantin Baranov, 23, a real estate broker, is typical of a new generation of middle-class young Muscovites: He is single, owns a car and still lives with his parents. He trawls the Internet relentlessly in his spare time. He has not taken sides regarding Iraq; Powell's speech did not move him in either direction.

"It didn't change my mind greatly," he said. "It added some details to what I knew."

Most convincing were the intercepted phone calls of Iraqi officials and the satellite photos of sites, Baranov said. Curiously, though, he seems to regard the U.N. presentation as an empty exercise: He said America's motive for war is to boost its economy and distract from domestic problems.

He has no illusions about the possible outcome either.

"There are some terrorist organizations which will be ready to proclaim another jihad against America if that war starts," he said. "So this war in Iraq won't make Americans feel safer from terrorism. The rest of the world will not feel safer either."

Times staff writers Janet Stobart in London and Robyn Dixon in Moscow contributed to this report.