WASHINGTON -- Colin Powell, seated in the U.S. delegate's seat
at the United Nations, kept a poker face Thursday that concealed justifiable
satisfaction as he listened to George W. Bush. The president was confronting
Saddam Hussein on a course favored by the secretary of state, who not long
ago was widely talked of as being dealt out of Iraqi policy.
"Colin is in the driver's seat right now," concluded a
Republican senator who is close to Powell. "How long he will be there, I
don't know. But he's there for now." That view is substantiated by the fact
that Bush was not only addressing the U.N. but asking the Security Council
to ratify U.S. policies. The president's speech contained no deadline, no
ultimatum and no pronouncement of war. That constitutes defeat for Powell's
adversaries inside and outside the administration.
Important though war or peace in Iraq is, more is at stake here.
High-ranking Bush officials wanted to make a defiant demonstration of its
sole superpower status, and Iraq seemed the most convenient target. From the
moment of the 9/11 attacks, certain Pentagon civilians and their friends
outside the government took the position that building an international
coalition against Saddam was not only unnecessary but also undesirable.
Such sentiment was directed at Powell, with his critics inside
the government saying he might be an excellent secretary of housing and
urban development but was the wrong man at the wrong time in the wrong place
at the State Department. For these critics, getting rid of Powell was nearly
as important as getting rid of Saddam. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld did
not go that far, but the policy gap between him and Powell is real and
The president was described by close associates as midway
between Powell and the Pentagon, but his father was not nearly so neutral.
The elder George Bush was infuriated a year ago by attacks on Powell's
performance in the 1991 Gulf War as Joint Chiefs chairman. Powell had a
strong advocate with total access to the president.
As the drumbeat against Iraq heightened in public declarations
by Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, Powell seemed irrelevant.
Recently, however, Powell made a comeback. He is credited with impressive
diplomacy in the India-Pakistan confrontation, with Powell's alter ego --
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage -- on the scene in South Asia.
Powell's performance at the Johannesburg global warming conference turned an
expected humiliation into a coup for the U.S. Most important, he has changed
the American tone on Iraq.
Beginning by meeting Bush at his Texas ranch, Powell has been in
frequent contact with the president the last two weeks. His conversations
with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw set the scene for the president's
conference with Prime Minister Tony Blair. The purpose was to lower
America's voice without lessening its resolve.
The resulting speech was a political tour de force: a tough
position against Iraq that disarmed previous critics. Democratic Sen. Joe
Biden, Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel and former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke
praised Bush. Hard-line advocates could hardly criticize the president for
telling the U.N. it must enforce its own mandates, violated for years by
Iraq. Senior hawks inside the administration applauded Bush for laying down
the law to the U.N. as no previous president had done.
As tough as Bush's position was described in Friday morning's
newspaper headlines, however, he took a half step back from an unconditional
demand for regime change in Baghdad. Implicitly at least, the president
pointed to ways that Saddam could avoid a military assault. While Cheney and
Rumsfeld have expressed no interest in a return of U.N. inspectors to
Baghdad, the president opened the door a crack.
Bush has thus moved from his dangerous posture a few weeks ago
that threatened to open hostilities without approval from either Congress or
the U.N. Abandonment of that position means the onus now is on Saddam
Hussein to obey U.N. edicts rather than on the U.S. to definitively prove
that Iraq poses an international security risk. George W. Bush is acting as
part of the world community, and Colin Powell is secretary of state in fact
as well as name.