Powell's New War

As George W. Bush raised the stakes in his war on terror last week--pitting America against an "axis of evil"--one member of his administration knew that the first thing he had to worry about was unrest among his own troops. Two days after Bush's dramatic State of the Union address, Colin Powell summoned his top staff and ordered them to line up behind the White House. "The president meant what he said," the secretary of State told his harried diplomats, who have had to explain the administration's increasingly bellicose bent to a worried world. "He feels deeply about it, and I don't want anyone in this room to take the edge off it," one attendee quoted Powell as saying.

As the secretary spoke, there was a stunned silence in the seventh-floor conference room at State. And as cables and alarmed media commentaries started pouring in from around the globe, they all realized they had a serious public-relations problem. Perhaps not since Ronald Reagan's 1983 declaration that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire" has the world had to contend with such a display of superpower pugnacity. There was, throughout the world, a nervous sense that Bush was declaring his right to bomb or invade any hapless country that, by his lights, might be deemed uncooperative or laggard in a fight the president has starkly cast as civilization vs. barbarism. "What was Don Regan's expression? 'The shovel brigade'?" former senator Sam Nunn remarked last Friday, referring to the jape by Reagan's chief of staff who said he was always cleaning up after his boss. "I think the [Bush administration] has a lot of diplomacy to do to catch up with that statement."

Not to mention a lot of explaining. That's why Colin Powell will be busy with his shovel in coming weeks. Bush, somewhat like Reagan in '83, caught nearly everyone by surprise when he took the conflict to a new level rhetorically. Only a triumphant Donald Rumsfeld seemed to know quite what the president meant when he lumped Iraq, Iran (two sworn enemies of each other) and North Korea together as an "axis." The Defense secretary, an ebullient warrior who has overseen the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, told reporters that the president's speech "had near-perfect clarity." National-security adviser Condoleezza Rice, the Bush alter ego who has veered between Rumsfeld's hawkishness and Powell's more moderate course since September 11, gave a speech reaffirming Bush's warning that "our nation will do everything in its power to deny the world's most dangerous powers the world's most dangerous weapons." In diplomacy, as in a Sherlock Holmes detective story, the giveaway clue is the dog that does not bark. It took several days for Powell, speaking at the World Economic Forum in New York, to declare that Americans would take on "evil regimes" to defeat terrorism.

Perhaps it was because Powell, the ex-general, was girding himself for what he knows is a formidable task. Even U.S. allies publicly, if gently, rebuked Bush after the speech. Jordan's King Abdullah said an attack on Iraq would cause "immense instability." On Capitol Hill, some of Bush's fellow Republicans also questioned the president's rhetoric. Sen. Gordon Smith, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the idea of putting the three nations in one category was "kind of disjointed." Bob Graham, chair of the Senate intelligence committee, dismissed the notion with a smirk. "There is no discernible connection among the three countries in terms of coordination of terrorism," the Democrat told NEWSWEEK. Foreign Relations chairman Sen. Joseph Biden added that even many Republicans "don't know what this means... Does it amount to a new doctrine? Does this mean we can move pre-emptively against those countries?"

As yet, no one is quite sure. A senior administration official told reporters that the speech was mainly intended to get attention, rather than presage specific new action. Powell told worried foreign leaders that the door remains open to negotiations with North Korea, and he hopes to encourage Iranian reformers by isolating hard-line Muslim clerics. And while the Bush administration has signaled that it intends to rid the world of Saddam Hussein, no attack on Iraq is imminent, sources say. Powell's aides, their boss's admonitions notwithstanding, told reporters that the Bush speech was geared primarily to a domestic audience and intended to shore up the budget demands. They noted that the new defense budget devotes a significant chunk of funds (some $7.8 billion this year) for missile defense. And in the prism of domestic politics, the "axis of evil" metaphor also conveyed "perfect clarity." Bush said the war may not be "finished on our watch," and the unspoken subtext was that when the 2004 presidential election rolls around, America will still need its war president. "It's the gift that keeps on giving," another Democratic senator commented archly last week.

Some administration insiders, however, say that, in fact, the speech was about more than politics, missile defense or delivering a rhetorical punch. The Bush team believes that the terrorist threat is unlikely to go away soon, and Osama bin Laden, whatever his fate, has demonstrated that massive killings can be very effective despite the licking Al Qaeda took in Afghanistan. The next logical step, the Bushies believe, is for terrorists to seek weapons of mass destruction. In his speech Bush accused Iran, Iraq and North Korea of developing such weapons and implied that all three sponsor terror (though only Iran is known to do so actively).

What is new, too--and the biggest challenge for U.S. diplomats--is the blunt willingness to wield American power. Rumsfeld has been the main champion of missile defense. But the real subtext to Bush's speech is that offense, not defense, has become America's strategic posture. Rumsfeld, declaring that attacks "vastly more deadly" than September 11 may occur, said last week that "defending against terrorism and other emerging 21st-century threats may well require that we take the war to the enemy." In part, Bush and Rumsfeld see this as a corrective to the Clinton years, when halfhearted reprisals seemed to only encourage bin Laden, who relished calling America a "paper tiger." Also behind the shift is a sense that, to Powell's disadvantage, diplomacy seems to have been less effective in the war on terror than the display of American might.

As a result of this changing geopolitical landscape, Powell faces new skepticism abroad. Increasingly, sympathetic foreign diplomats suggest that the administration's chief coalition builder has been "marginalized." In fact, Powell appears to be soldiering on loyally beside his chief--and still winning small but important internal battles. Aides say Powell is likely to gain the president's consent to treating Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay under Geneva Convention rules--though not as prisoners of war. Rumsfeld is under pressure from U.S. military leaders, who worry that their own soldiers, especially nonuniformed Special Forces, might be mistreated if captured. Backed by Bush's iron fist, Powell may even find it easier in some cases to press diplomatic initiatives. "It isn't Powell who has been marginalized," says an official who has been in two administrations. "It is the State Department." And in a war presidency, things may stay that way for a long time.