Colin Powell driving

Posted: Sep 16, 2002 12:00 AM
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 substantial. 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.