Will Powell turn from pal to pol?

September 22, 1994|By Sandy Grady

Washington -- FACING a clock and bank of phones, Bill Clinton knew paratroopers were winging toward Haiti and camouflage-faced Marines were four hours away from storming the beaches.

Sunday, 8:05 p.m. The exultant call came from Jimmy Carter: "We've got a deal."

In the euphoria, even a political critter such as Bill Clinton didn't have time to muse about a presidential election 26 months away.

But there's irony in the 11th-hour triumph that saved American lives and temporarily rescued Bill Clinton's sagging fortunes:

The cliffhanger deal in Haiti again propelled into the national limelight the man who could be Bill Clinton's most dangerous 1996 opponent -- a retired general -- Colin Powell.

No one knows whether Mr. Powell -- called the "Black Ike" because of parallels with 1952's Dwight Eisenhower -- will be tempted into the '96 presidential scramble.

In two national polls, Mr. Powell tied or defeated Mr. Clinton in a hypothetical race. His 70-percent approval tops all Republican contenders.

Give Bill Clinton credit for ignoring the 1996 trouble when he committed the masterstroke: Recruiting Mr. Powell to ride wing with Jimmy Carter and Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., on the mission to save the Haiti mess from the brink.

Even before the Haiti drama, Colin Powell was intriguing political dynamite: a black Republican candidate with dazzling military credentials and a smooth, forceful persona.

The tense haggling that staved off invasion, though, enhances Mr. Powell's presidential weight. This isn't merely the unflappable general who oversaw the Persian Gulf war but a subtle, savvy diplomatic operator.

Sure, President Carter was the dogged hero of the beat-the-clock mission. Jimmy hung tough when Bill Clinton was pushing him, "Get outta there, troops are on the way."

But without Colin Powell, there would have been a Dirty Little War instead of American GIs landing in peaceful sunshine.

"It couldn't have been possible without the superb respect the Haitian military has for Gen. Powell," said Mr. Carter.

Bill Clinton wanted Colin Powell aboard for a raw reason. Key among them was: Generals talk to generals. Also, because of his Caribbean roots (Mr. Powell's parents drifted from Jamaica to the South Bronx.), he was the American Gen. Raoul Cedras would admire as a heavy hitter.

It paid off big in unintended ways.

"I think the role I may have played was to appeal to their sense of honor," said Mr. Powell, standing by Mr. Carter, Mr. Nunn and Mr. Clinton at the White House.

Translation: Mr. Cedras is a murderous thug, but military pride made him ready to die battling an invader.

Mr. Powell had to convince him that surrendering power against insurmountable U.S. force was no dishonor.

Dressed in a dark-blue suit instead of the medal-spangled uniform he wore as head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until his 1993 retirement, Mr. Powell left Mr. Cedras no doubt about the armada poised to crush him.

"Colin Powell described in detail every plane, ship and weapon," said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., after a White House briefing. "It had to impress Cedras."

Oddly, the person Colin Powell had to persuade was Mr. Cedras' wife, Yanick. In a 90-minute session at Mr. Cedras' house Sunday morning -- Mr. Carter said the family "seemed ready to die" -- Mr. Powell hammered at their duty to avoid Haitian bloodshed. "Long, painful conversations; the room full of emotion," recalled Mr. Powell.

At 5:20 p.m. Sunday, tipped by Fort Bragg, N.C., sympathizers that 61 U.S. Air Force transports had taken off, the generals accused Mr. Carter, Mr. Nunn and Mr. Powell of a trick. Mr. Powell soothed their nerves; no ruse, the C-130s could be recalled.

"They blinked," said Mr. Carter. The group walked to the presidential palace. In front of Mr. Powell, the generals gave their "military word of honor" to step down by Oct. 15. The Pentagon flashed: "Cancel H-hour."

Sure, there are loopholes big enough for an M-1 tank. What if Mr. Cedras does a U-turn? Refuses to leave the country? Stirs riots? Leads a rebellion against Jean-Bertrand Aristide? Runs for president himself?

Mr. Powell, soft-spoken in the White House glare, shrugged off risks. "Let that flow," he said. "The image we were all afraid we'd see has been avoided -- American youngsters killing Haitian youngsters and Haitian youngsters killing Americans."

I was struck by Mr. Powell's multi-dimensions. This wasn't the same fire-breathing general who seethed at Saddam Hussein's army, "First, we're gonna cut it off. Then we're gonna kill it."

So Mr. Powell went home to finish his memoirs -- he has a stunning $6.5 million Random House contract -- and refurbish old Volvos in his garage. But you can bet the GOP ex-pals, Dan Quayle and Bob Dole and Richard Cheney and Jim Baker, were fascinated. Is Mr. Powell their dream running mate? Or a black Republican who could win the White House in 1996?

Watching Colin Powell's cool performance, Bill Clinton must have had a flashing premonition: Did I avert a crisis -- and create the superstar who'll haunt me?

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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