WASHINGTON -- Since Colin Powell has been relied upon to impede the nation's march to war in Iraq, apprehensive Republicans were startled last week by his suddenly bellicose rhetoric. So were investors, and they sent the Dow Jones average into a 238-point swoon Friday. Yet, the secretary of state had not yet joined the war hawks pressing for the military overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Powell, a master at negotiating the national security bureaucracy's dangerous waters over the past generation, knows that now is not the hour to publicly dissent from President Bush's hard line or give Iraq the impression of a divided U.S. government. Beneath the surface, however, Powell remains the voice of restraint against unilateral military action.
That is one cause of Powell's genuine anger when France joined Germany in counting itself out of an attack on Baghdad. It prevented a solid coalition and also contributed to the contempt by the administration's hawks against alliance warfare, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sneering that France and Germany are "old Europe."
Powell is reported as even more frustrated by the mindless intransigence of the Iraqi regime, especially bluster by President Hussein and his son, Uday. Officials in Baghdad who have had indirect, unofficial contact with Powell have begged for some counsel from Washington on how to avert a war they would be doomed to lose. The secretary of state -- also indirectly and unofficially -- asked for confessions of weapons violations from the regime. All he got was the "discovery" of four empty chemical weapons warheads.
Nevertheless, prospects for war are unchanged at this writing: probable but not inevitable. After debate at the White House, it was decided to hold open the president's State of the Union address Tuesday to take note of Monday's report by United Nations weapons inspectors. One senior aide told me the president had not given the go sign for war. Until Powell's warlike comments last Thursday, critics of unilateral action felt the climate was turning against war.
These critics are apprehensive about the diplomatic fallout -- not the military outcome -- of the Anglo-Americans going it alone. Nobody gives credence to Rumsfeld's comments last week that "a very large number of countries . . . are anxious" to join a military campaign, with or without a second U.N. resolution.
On the day of Rumsfeld's comments, signals from Ankara indicated Turkey is not so "anxious." Bulint Arinc, speaker of the Turkish Parliament, declined a luncheon invitation from U.S. Ambassador Robert Pearson (on grounds Pearson did not congratulate him for being elected speaker). The chairmen of Parliament's foreign affairs and defense committees spurned similar invitations (on grounds that the American envoy should visit them). Disaffection by Iraq's neighbor is more significant than Franco-German opposition.
Worried Republicans, while avoiding a split with their president, cannot restrain their concern. In his syndicated column last week, Jack Kemp praised Bush's handling of Iraq and then issued this warning: "We are so close to victory that it would be a tragedy if a few war hawks pushed us into an unnecessary invasion and occupation of an Arab country." The GOP's 1996 vice presidential candidate concluded that "now is the time to sit down across the table from the Iraqis, eyeball to eyeball, and tell them precisely what they must do to avoid war."
Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, second-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is in the same boat as Kemp. "America must guard against the hubris of great power," he declared at the University of Notre Dame Friday. He then cited "The Savage Wars of Peace" by Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an intellectual guide of the war hawks. "In deploying American power," Boot writes, "decision makers should be less apologetic, less hesitant, less humble." Hagel advised that America today "needs more humility."
Nobody doubts that Colin Powell is closer to Chuck Hagel than to Max Boot. In a dinner with the president last Aug. 5 (recorded by Bob Woodward in "Bush at War"), Powell laid out fearsome consequences of unilateral U.S. military action. Surely, the general did not change that much during the intervening six months. Whether events have made his comments irrelevant worries like-minded Republicans.