Something snapped inside Colin Powell. For two long years the secretary of State had been the biggest dove inside the Bush cabinet, slowing the hawks' headlong rush to war in Iraq. When his archrival, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, had raised the idea of taking on Saddam Hussein only days after 9-11, Powell rolled his eyes in exasperation, insisting Al Qaeda alone should be the focus. Last summer Powell warned President Bush in dire terms not to attack Iraq unilaterally, and prodded him to go to the United Nations. But last week, as Powell listened to Europeans boast about the success of the weapons inspectors in Iraq, his patience finally gave out. Sitting across a long rectangular table inside Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria hotel, the usually genial Powell issued a stark warning to his French counterpart: the clock has run out on Saddam and the United Nations. "Don't underestimate the resolve of the United States to solve this problem without dragging it out," he said. The dove had finally morphed into a hawk.
Powell has long been a reluctant warrior. The former four-star general and decorated Vietnam veteran once questioned the need to go to war to liberate Kuwait. Later he counseled against military interventions in the Balkans. Now he is telling America's war-wary allies that there is no peaceful way to disarm Saddam Hussein. While the French argued that U.N. inspectors had "frozen" Iraq's weapons programs, Powell was blunt and dismissive. "Inspections," he told reporters categorically last week, "will not work." One senior State Department official explains Powell's change of heart as a gradual awakening: "People ask why Powell is becoming increasingly hard-line. It's because every day, when we wake up in the morning, the facts are clear that Iraq has gone back to its old ways and is refusing to disarm, and trying to prevent the inspectors from disarming them. It's a big decision, especially for a former general who knows what this is all about."
Powell's conversion is the surest sign that what once looked like a game of brinkmanship with Iraq is becoming a deadly serious preparation for war. George W. Bush always threatened to lead the world against Iraq--despite warnings that an unpopular, pre-emptive war could make America less safe by fueling anti-Americanism around the globe, and perhaps even by provoking Saddam to disperse his chemical and biological agents to terrorists. Now Bush says it's time for the rest of the world to step onboard or step aside as the United States disarms Saddam by force. Administration officials tell NEWSWEEK their strategy is to give one last chance, not to Baghdad, but to the United Nations. That means a final diplomatic push--to win over world opinion--lasting weeks, not months.
This week Bush will spell out America's duty to disarm Saddam in his State of the Union address, just one day after U.N. weapons inspectors issue their first full report on Iraq. That will weigh heavily over the key sessions at the United Nations. By the end of the week, Bush meets with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Camp David to plan the final weeks before war. "February is the battleground," says one senior British official, predicting intense public pressure as the war machine gets ready to roll. Of course, war could still be avoided by a surprise military coup in Baghdad. But nobody inside the Bush administration is banking on it. "We're on the cusp of a big decision," says one senior administration official.
More signs that the Bush White House is thinking of war: memories of 1991 and the heavy presence of gray hairs in the West Wing. President Bush's father was wandering through the offices of his son's advisers, while former secretary of State Henry Kissinger sat patiently in the West Wing lobby late last week. The 41st president (in town for a gala dinner) seemed to be enjoying himself as he tried to "pop in on friends," including national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice and chief of staff Andy Card. "I'm just here to give a little adult leadership," he quipped.
White House officials are taking note of the way Bush Sr. handled the job of confronting Saddam more than a decade ago. In particular, they've been comparing the allies' concerns about war in Iraq now with those expressed at the outset of the gulf war in 1991. A senior administration official says today's nervous allies are "akin to 1991," when the cry was "let sanctions work." Moreover, White House officials (who pride themselves on not following the polls) have at their fingertips poll numbers for both the 43d and 41st presidents, claiming that there is more support for the use of force now than there was in 1991.
In fact, the new NEWSWEEK Poll shows hesitant domestic support for Bush's policies. Bush's approval rating has slipped to 55 percent (from 83 percent a year ago), while a majority now dislike his economic policies. On Iraq, 53 percent approve of his overall position, but two thirds of Americans want to take more time before using force. A clear majority disapprove of the United States' going to war alongside just one or two major allies and without U.N. support. That leaves a slender opening for Bush's future Democratic challengers, such as John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator and the only Vietnam veteran in the field. Kerry tiptoed through the minefield last week, pledging support for war against Iraq while criticizing Bush's impatience.
There is more going on here than the mere disarmament of a regime that has frustrated American presidents for 12 years. Bush is leading the world toward a new kind of war. Instead of reacting defensively to some international crisis--a foreign attack or invasion--Washington will force the crisis, in hopes of averting a bigger battle down the road. This is a dramatic break with American tradition: even during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, facing the threat of nuclear war, JFK was reluctant to launch pre-emptive airstrikes, fearing the world would cast him as an aggressor like the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. The Bush hawks--led by Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney--say that in the post-9-11 world, preventive war is imperative. It is also morally justified, they say, because America's unparalleled power works for the world's good, bringing freedom and democracy. "This nation never conquers, but we liberate," as Bush likes to say.
Powell and his fellow moderates now appear to share this might-makes-things-right approach with the troubled Arab world. At the United Nations, Powell stunned his fellow foreign ministers by comparing imminent war in Iraq to the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, NEWSWEEK has learned. Powell dismissed French and German criticism by saying that everyone complained, too, when Washington removed dictator Manuel Noriega. But the outcome went well, and the country was returned, democratized, to its people. "Success begets success," Powell said, according to officials who heard his impromptu remarks.
Iraq is the first live-fire test of the hawks' world view. "Defending against terrorism and other emerging 21st-century threats may well require that we take the war to the enemy," Rumsfeld told National Defense University in Washington. "The best--and, in some cases, the only--defense is a good offense." The only problem is that many world capitals--and members of the U.N. Security Council--are deeply uneasy with American offense. Critics also suspect the Bush administration has a larger agenda: a kind of American empire, in which America sets the rules and gives short shrift to institutions like the United Nations. Part of the problem lies with the personality of the president himself. The straight-shooting Texan style might play well in the heartland, but it makes allies nervous. Even when Bush tries to reassure the world that he is no lone ranger, he can look like his own caricature. One senior Bush aide recalls President Bush telling Czech President Vaclav Havel in Prague last fall: "I know some in Europe see me as a Texas cowboy with six-shooters at my side. But the truth is I prefer to work with a posse."
Those tensions lie behind the new breakdown of trust between Washington and its allies. Until now, most other countries believed that the Bush administration was mainly pursuing a strategy of "force on mind." The idea was that a combination of tough talk and a theatrical military buildup would place unbearable psychological pressure on Saddam's regime. Operation Force on Mind is what the Brits are calling their Army buildup in the Gulf, and Tony Blair said last week that British intelligence indicated the Iraqi regime was "weakening." (A U.S. intelligence official agreed, telling NEWSWEEK that the pressure had rattled Saddam's internal support base more than has been seen in years.) In fact, actual deployments are far more measured than the headlines convey. Logistics troops are going out to the region, along with specialized equipment. But aside from the Third Mechanized Infantry Division, no other heavy unit has actually been sent out yet. The logistics time line suggests March at the earliest for war in the region.
Yet Force on Mind is also placing unbearable pressure on America's allies. Many Security Council members--especially some Europeans, Russia and China--say they think Bush really wanted to go to war all along. Even the president's American critics say the case for immediate war has not been clearly made. "Initially, there was at least an implication that [Iraq] was linked to terrorism," says retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni. "When that link couldn't be made, it was possession of weapons of mass destruction. When that case couldn't be made, it was lack of cooperation. Right now, it's down to 'You won't let us talk to your scientists' as the reasons for going to war. And 'We know what the Iraqis have, but we can't tell you.' I just think it's too confusing." When an official of the U.N. nuclear agency said last week that Saddam would get a B for his cooperation thus far, the administration was furious. Condi Rice called agency head Mohamed El Baradei, NEWSWEEK has learned, and told him that his job was to report the facts--the United Nations would judge compliance.
With the exception of a few U.S. allies--Britain, Spain and Bulgaria--most Council members are pushing for inspections to go on for months longer. Several ambassadors tell NEWSWEEK that these nations have their own quiet agenda: to stop war at any cost by endlessly playing out the inspections. "The bottom line is that people just don't believe in this war," says one Security Council member. "And the U.S. can't attack while the inspectors are there."
Paris and Berlin, especially, seem more troubled by the prospect of America's unbridled military power than Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Senior French officials say their position hardened after a series of meetings with their American counterparts, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. "We got the impression from talks in Washington that everything was already decided, and that war was inevitable," says a senior official in Paris. "This is not our position." There's still ample room for the French and les anglo-saxons, as they call the Americans and British, to find a compromise. According to one senior European official, they may hammer out a new U.N. resolution with clearer deadlines--effectively stalling the "rush to war," but eliminating the appearance of an open-ended inspection process. But in Germany, where Chancellor Gerhard Schroder opposed war in Iraq as a key part of his re-election strategy last year, officials are simply alarmed by the Bush White House. "Schroder genuinely fears that this administration has gone mad," says one senior German official.
At the same time, Bush aides have been quick to point out that Europe is divided; Rumsfeld rubbed salt into the transatlantic wounds by dismissing Paris and Berlin as "Old Europe" last week. And the president is described by aides as being quite blase about France's very public opposition to his policies. His attitude, according to a senior official, is: "Either they are with us or not. Either one is fine. C'est la vie."
Bush is far less nonchalant about that other bastion of Old Europe, Britain. Blair, Bush's most stalwart ally, must soon decide whether he backs the United States or the European skeptics. British officials tell NEWSWEEK that Blair will plead for more time for the U.N. inspectors this week. "We are trying to come up with a way that avoids the two poles diverging. But they are diverging, and that is bad news for us," says one senior Blair aide. Yet while the Brits need to find a smoking gun fast, the Bushies seem happy without one. "In some sense the smoking gun is already there," says one senior administration official. "It's seven years of inspections that produced in 1998 an inventory of weapons of mass destruction. There are smoking guns all over the place."
In that case, Blair may have to swallow hard and go to war without public support. His aides acknowledged last week that without Powell, the doves have lost their loudest voice. Many foreign diplomats have lost hope that war can be averted. "Powell was our salvation," says one U.N. ambassador. An unlikely alliance of State and Defense officials coordinated a series of speeches last week to force the point home that inspections were now useless. "If you have more inspections, will Saddam cooperate?" asked one senior State Department official. "We think just the opposite is true. He will get used to it and be able to manipulate it and the world will lose interest, as we have done in the past."
That was the very message Cheney delivered last August, to Powell's dismay. At the time, it just looked like an attempt to undercut the U.N. process. Now it looks like the doves and hawks are flying to the same destination.
In the graphic "Bound For Battle" (Feb. 3), we incorrectly stated the location of Hurlburt Field. It is in Florida, not Georgia.