Washington: Powell In The Bunker

Beyond his ornate waiting rooms, and behind his vast outer office, there's a small, intimate study where Colin Powell retreats from the public posturing of international politics. It's rare for any foreign official to enter the secretary of State's inner sanctum. Yet last week Powell ushered the obscure foreign minister of Guinea in for some quality time alone amid Henry Kissinger's memoirs and the Dean Acheson biographies. Just four months ago, Powell was celebrating one of his biggest victories with an extraordinary 15-0 vote against Iraq at the United Nations. Now he was being forced to entertain one of the leaders of a tiny West African nation--the former French colony that happens to hold this month's presidency of the Security Council--to stave off one of the most frustrating and public defeats of Powell's diplomatic career. Despite his precious face time with Powell, the Guinean minister emerged sounding like a dove. "We are trying to solve the problem peacefully," Francois Fall told the cameras outside.

Sitting in his private study between calls to his counterparts across the globe, Powell sounds like a man ready to fight for his reputation, even as the president edges closer to launching military strikes. Dressed in a blue windbreaker, Powell makes no apologies for leading the administration into six months of U.N. wrangling and what his critics have called the inspections trap. "Now lots of people call me 'the reluctant warrior' or 'the dove.' And I say fine," he tells NEWSWEEK as he opens his jacket to thrust out his chest. "Would you like to tattoo it on me? I don't mind. I've seen war, I've been in war, I've led men in battle... I don't have to demonstrate my toughness or my credentials to anyone."

As the chief diplomat in one of the least diplomatic administrations in living memory, Powell has taken a very different journey to war than his fellow principal players advising President Bush. Powell's hawkish, neoconservative critics have long contended that he is somehow soft on Saddam--not least because he initially questioned the need to fight to liberate Kuwait a decade ago. Yet few of his critics understand what it means to sit on the brink of battle as well as the former four-star general who served two tours of duty in Vietnam. Often, Powell and his adversaries seem to be speaking the same language--but for divergent purposes. Both sides agreed that going to the United Nations could be helpful. The hawks saw the new policy as providing political cover for war, humoring the international community while remaining hostile to the return of the weapons inspectors. Powell saw the U.N. process, backed by a substantial military buildup, as a strategy to actually avert war--as long as Saddam got the message.

"I think there was a realistic chance that it could have worked, if [Saddam] realized the seriousness of the president's intent," Powell says. "Others would say, no, there never was." Leading those "others" who dismissed the chances of a peaceful disarmament is Vice President Dick Cheney, who warned in August that the U.N. route would provide "false comfort." President Bush seems to have fallen somewhere in between. "Were we optimistic? No," says one senior Bush aide. "Did we enter with pessimism that Saddam was going to comply? Of course. His behavior requires it."

As the months dragged on, Powell's course became harder to sustain in the face of constant hawkish pressure. Eventually, his friends say, he faced a choice: get with the program, or move on. Richard Haass, director of policy planning at State, suggests that Powell was merely following orders. "The president made a decision in the summer of 2002," Haass says. "We all saluted at that point. That is the way it works." Powell became the pitchman for war before the United Nations. But he never spoke with the urgency or passion of the hawks. "It was something that had to be dealt with sooner or later," Powell says simply.

Even as he saluted his commander in chief, Powell did not lay down his arms in the internal battle over Iraq. NEWSWEEK has learned that as the Pentagon drew up its military strategy, Powell emerged from his diplomatic foxhole at the State Department to question sharply the first war plans presented by Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in the Gulf, and Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In particular, Powell challenged the early plans favored by Rumsfeld for a relatively small-scale force to surgically destroy strongholds of Saddam's regime. "I was a former chairman [of the Joint Chiefs] and I was in the gulf war," Powell says. "So I think I have made useful contributions, appropriate to my experience but also appropriate to my current position." Some civilian officials at the Pentagon were irked at Powell's initial interest in the war plan, but appeared to accept his interventions. "There wasn't a bad reaction," says Powell's deputy, Richard Armitage, who is also a Vietnam vet. "And I notice over time the plan has changed a bit."

Of course, Rumsfeld has also strayed into Powell's diplomatic territory, questioning the British contribution to war and bluntly dismissing France and Germany as "old Europe." When asked if his job had been complicated by Rumsfeld's blunt commentary, Powell broke into a broad grin. "Don and I speak candidly every day," he joked, using the diplomatic code for a dustup.

Were the administration's internal battles partly responsible for the chaos at the United Nations? Did the hawkish tone and tactics leave Powell destined to fail? The French say yes: the United States was never serious about inspections. But Powell and his adversaries are at least united in turning their fire on the French for reneging on the last resolution.

Some critics point the finger at Powell himself, and his reluctance to travel to foreign capitals. But that may be naive, according to Powell's allies. In the eternal ideological disputes over foreign policy, Powell simply cannot afford to leave town. "The fact of the matter is that decisions are made here," says Armitage. "He's got to be here to make his views known to the president." In what seemed like the final days of diplomacy, only Bush was able to leave Washington--to jet to the Azores for a crisis summit with his British and Spanish allies.

At State, Powell's fans fear the current crisis may lead him to consider leaving office. But his closest friends insist the old general is no quitter and instead point to a series of other successes--including last week's promise to release the long-delayed road map toward peace in the Middle East. "I think the secretary feels pretty good that he gave the Security Council a chance to be entirely relevant," says Armitage. "I think he figures he's done his job."

Washington: Powell In The Bunker | News