Secretary of State Colin Powell laid out the case against Saddam Hussein to the United Nations Security council, saying that leaving Saddam in possession of weapons of mass destruction is “not an option. Not in a post-Sept. 11 world.”

I won’t go into the evidence that was presented by Secretary Powell – there was plenty and the transcripts are publicly available.

After Powell was done laying out the case, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw reminded the U.N. that “we owe it to history” not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Specifically, Straw was referring to the failed League of Nations that lapsed into irrelevancy and ultimately collapsed as a consequence of failing to act to prevent World War II.

When Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, the League waited months before appointing the Lytton commission to investigate. The argument then, as now, was that there was no “smoking gun,” and that while evil, the evil wasn’t evil enough to justify action.

By the time the “inspectors” arrived, the Japanese had occupied three of Manchuria’s five provinces.

Months later, when the commission reported that Japan might be a threat, the Japanese had already installed a puppet government. It took World War II to dislodge the Japanese from China.

In 1935, Haile Selassie made an impassioned plea to the League to rescue Abysinnia (now Ethiopia) from Mussolini’s invasion. The League reacted just like it did with Japan. As with China, Abyssinia was not only not rescued, but it remained occupied by Italy until Mussolini was defeated.

And that defeat came, not at the hands of the League of Nations but by a “coalition of the willing” – known to history as the “Allies.”

The League did nothing to stop Hitler’s invasions of Austria and Czechoslovakia, and sat silently as Hitler invaded Poland. The League sat out World War II from the safety of London. It was dissolved as soon as the coalition of the willing had finished cleaning up the mess they allowed to develop.

The same fate may well await the equally toothless United Nations.

Secretary Powell made it painfully clear that it isn’t just Iraq facing one last, final, this-time-we-really-mean-it last chance. The United Nations is on notice as well.

The French, Chinese and Russians all read prepared statements following Powell’s presentation – statements that had clearly been prepared before they heard the evidence. And having heard the evidence, they were still calling for more time for the inspections.

History repeats itself. That is a truism as certain as the inevitability of death and taxes. “One thing man learns from history is that man learns nothing from history”, wrote the bard.

The French foreign minister, Dominque de Vellepin, fretted about the danger of acting against Iraq without ever addressing the obvious dangers associated with inaction.

That’s what the League did in 1931, 1935 and 1938. In each case, the Japanese, Italians and Germans thumbed their noses at the world body, and the world body fretted about the dangers of action at the expense of ignoring the dangers of inaction.

In his prepared statement, de Vellepin systematically excused each violation of Resolution 1441 on Iraq’s behalf, saying Iraq “must do more” or “else.”

Saddam must be shaking in his boots. After all, the French are threatening him with “or else” now!

But with all of that, the French are unlikely to stay out on the limb where they’ve taken a perch with the Germans.

De Vellepin’s speech was typically French, sounding like they are planning to stand firm, but leaving themselves with plenty of room for retreat later.

After all, the French don’t want to be left out when the time comes to parcel out those lucrative rebuilding contracts, high moral ground notwithstanding.

Powell left no doubt that the U.N. was on the same thin ice that Saddam is now skating on: “Iraq has now placed itself in danger of the serious consequences called for in U.N. resolution 1441,” he said. “This body places itself in danger of irrelevance if it allows Iraq to continue to defy its will without responding effectively and immediately. The issue before us is not how much time we are willing to give the inspectors to be frustrated by Iraqi obstruction, but how much longer are we willing to put up with Iraq’s non-compliance before we as a council, we as the United Nations, say ‘Enough, enough’?”

Phrased another way, it appears just a matter of time before the United States tells the U.N., “Abysinnia!”

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