WASHINGTON -- Don Rumsfeld's emergence as the media superstar fighting terrorism does not mean Colin Powell is a failure. Rather, the secretary of state since Sept. 11 has registered multiple policy successes: conducting a coalition war, building ties with Russia and supporting a Palestinian state.
This agenda has come under relentless attack from the core constituency that elected George W. Bush president. Neo-conservatives, the Old Right and some centrist Democrats are unhappy with Powell's initiatives. He could not have survived without support from President Bush.
Still to be determined is Iraq policy. Contrary to his critics, Powell is not soft on Saddam Hussein. However, he is reluctant to launch a unilateral attack on Iraq and remains interested in trading an end to sanctions in return for rigorous weapons inspection. Powell has delivered no recommendation about Iraq to Bush, and neither have Rumsfeld or National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
On the morning of Sept. 12, Powell was under assault. The key issue was whether the counterattack against terrorism should imitate the Gulf War model of a global coalition or the U.S. should fight alone, helped only by Israel. Richard Perle, a private citizen with intimate Pentagon connections as chairman of the Defense Department's Policy Board, was openly contemptuous of coalition warfare against terrorism.
Powell quickly reached agreement with Rumsfeld. The defense secretary wanted assurance that considerations of coalition would not interfere with military operations. Powell assured him it would not, and began the tedious task of coalition building: the secretary of state globetrotting and heads of government parading to see the president. The process warmed and expanded important relations with Pakistan and Russia.
The new U.S.-Russia link contributed significantly to the war effort in Afghanistan. Derided by the administration's hard-liners, the partnership has permitted temporary U.S. military bases in (formerly Soviet) Uzbekistan -- preposterous prior to Sept. 11.
In Brussels early in December, Powell asked Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov whether he was nervous about American soldiers inside the old Soviet Union. Ivanov responded that zone-of-influence ideology is outmoded. Powell has stressed to the Russians that the U.S. has no permanent interests in Central Asia, while Washington and Moscow face a common threat from Muslim fundamentalism.
Powell does not imitate Bush in gazing into Vladimir Putin's soul, but he does consider the Russian president a new man. The improved bilateral relationship produced Putin's passive language ("mistaken" was his strongest word) when Bush abandoned the ABM Treaty. That guaranteed no renewed arms race, contrary to dire predictions by Democratic senators.
While neo-conservatives and many Republicans indicted Powell for moral equivalency between Israelis and Palestinians, he accomplished a policy breakthrough. He came under merciless attack after inadvertently mentioning the word "Palestine" in an early appearance before Congress. But after Bush called for a Palestinian state in his United Nations address, Powell could then, at Louisville, ask both sides to recognize two states living side by side.
Powell is impatient with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat but also has been blunt in telling Ariel Sharon that his policies during 11 months as prime minister have not achieved peace and security for his country. Onerous though it is, Powell feels that it is a duty for him and Bush to talk bluntly to both Israelis and Palestinians.
Since before the terrorist attacks but increasingly since then, Powell has been pressured to attack Iraq. While publicly reiterating the U.S. government's desire to get rid of Saddam, he has made no recommendation to the president of how to achieve it.
There is surely no way to tie a military assault against Saddam with the events of Sept. 11. "No smoking gun has been found which can bring Iraq to the court of public opinion, but it's still a bad regime," a senior State Department official told me. That Powell sees value in weapons inspectors returning to Iraq would seem to rule out the secretary of state recommending war against Saddam as the follow-up to Afghanistan.
Shortly after the terrorist attack, an influential national security conservative told me that Colin Powell would make an excellent secretary of housing and urban development but was a disaster at the State Department. The nation can be thankful for that disaster's performance the past 100 days.