Powell singular in Bush crowd

March 25, 2001|By Jim Anderson

WASHINGTON -- The journalistic love affair with Secretary of State Colin Powell is unmatched, except by the same kind of puppy love that reporters showed his predecessor, Madeline Albright, and her predecessor, Warren Christopher, and his predecessor, James A. Baker. The list goes on. All of those earlier affairs ended in tears.

Diplomatic reporters tend to fall in and out of love easily when there is no actual substance to report on, especially when the new secretary of state actually speaks with them and pays them the ultimate compliment of learning their names and reading what they write. Mr. Powell did both of those on his quick trip to the Middle East and Brussels a few weeks ago.

Summing up the fickleness of the breed, one reporter remarked, "The thing that I like best about Powell is that he's not Albright." This an oblique reference to Ms. Albright's tendency to surround herself with court favorites who spent more energy burnishing her image than dealing with the gritty substance of diplomacy.

The infatuation with Mr. Powell is echoed in the Foreign Service, which also had resented Ms. Albright's catering to the exceedingly political tendencies of the Clinton White House.

One of Mr. Powell's new inner circle of career diplomats said admiringly, "He actually pays attention to the policy papers that we send him." A longtime observer of how the U.S. foreign policy establishment works, Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat and senior minority member of the International Relations Committee, said recently, "The State Department just loves him."

Mr. Powell, who understands the chain of command from his military career, is willing to listen to the working levels of the State Department. He even invited some relatively low-level desk officers to brief him about U.S.-Mexico relations. At the State Department, that's kind of a revolution.

But the real test, as all past secretaries have learned, is whether the White House, particularly the president, respects you. Henry Kissinger solved that problem uniquely by personally retaining control of both the State Department and the National Security Council. But nobody else has been able to carry out such a coup, partly out of fear of creating another Kissinger.

Mr. Powell's specific problem is that Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have extensive experience in foreign policy. Both are seasoned bureaucratic infighters; both are close to President Bush. The national security adviser, Condoleeza Rice, normally would play a referee's role.

An early sign that Mr. Powell might be up against some stiff infighting popped up when he unveiled during his recent Middle East trip his idea of "smart sanctions" against Iraq -- lifting some of the bars against things like medical equipment and tightening them on military materiel. The absence of public comment from the Pentagon or the White House was notable.

Both Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld have been around long enough to understand that the world of sanctions -- even "smart" ones -- is not so easily divided into military and nonmilitary equipment. A computer, for example, can be used to design weapons and also to maintain medical records in a children's hospital. A pickup truck can be converted into an ambulance or it can be used as a platform for heavy weapons.

On a recent trip to Europe, Mr. Rumsfeld broke a lot of china that Mr. Powell will have to sweep up when he pushed aside Franco-German reservations about a U.S. missile defense shield. Mr. Rumsfeld's reply was disdainful: The issue with the missile plan, he said, is not "whether" to go ahead with it but "what and when."

Mr. Cheney's second cardiac episode in three months has raised doubts about his physical ability to play a strong role in the new administration. That may be bad news for Mr. Powell since Mr. Cheney has the potential to play intermediary between Mr. Powell and Mr. Rumsfeld on issues that cross between the Pentagon and the State Department. The absence of strong, precise input from Mr. Bush or Mr. Cheney will prolong the contest between State and the Pentagon. It will be resolved, one way or the other.

Mr. Powell didn't get to be a four-star general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff without real talent for playing politics. But, in baseball terms, that was AAA. He's now in the World Series, where the pitching is brutal.

Jim Anderson is a Washington correspondent who has covered the State Department through 12 secretaries of state, beginning with William P. Rogers in 1969.

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