The resurrection of Colin Powell


Strategy: After a shaky first eight months in office, the secretary of state has put his stamp on the nation's new battle against terrorism.

October 08, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON-Colin L. Powell, the old military commander, is finally making his mark as America's chief diplomat.

After a rocky first eight months as secretary of state, during which he seemed at times out of sync with a president whose top national security priority was missile defense, Powell has put his stamp on America's new battle against terrorism, a battle that assumed a military dimension yesterday.

Key decisions since Sept. 11 reflect his influence and caution: The United States avoided immediate military retaliation for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. It has narrowed its immediate target to the one enemy - Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network - that it could credibly hold responsible.

A global anti-terrorism coalition has been forged. One of the first results emerged yesterday, when President Bush reported that "more than 40 countries in the Middle East, Africa, Europe and across Asia have granted air-transit or landing rights." And the United States has avoided stating the explicit goal of toppling the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, although that is now considered more likely.

"In the overall sense of caution and carefulness, and don't-run-off-half-cocked, [the response] is quintessentially Colin Powell," said Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser in President George Bush's administration. "I think Powell's stock has risen dramatically since Sept. 11," said a senior Arab diplomat. "His views, his position have prevailed - at least for now."

"We trust Powell. It's as simple as that," said a European diplomat.

Critics, however, question whether the strategy Powell propounds will be effective in combating global terrorism as the battle proceeds from yesterday's initial attack.

They see him building an unwieldy, lowest-common-denominator coalition, with nations that might not be useful, and could spell trouble down the line by letting states that sponsor terrorism off the hook and refusing to target key terrorist groups for the sake of not upsetting Middle East allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Powell was in Peru the morning of Sept. 11, having breakfast with President Alejandro Toledo, when he learned of the attacks against the United States. Flying back to Washington, he exclaimed to an aide: "This changes everything - all our relationships, all our goals. This is the only thing that's going to be important."

Having one thing that's important brings out the best in the former Army general, who achieved national-hero status as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the 1991 Persian Gulf war against Iraq.

Powell, says a man who worked closely with him in the past, "is not at his best expounding grand visions. He's a practical manager. He's a great one to formulate a plan of action and get it done. This is a concrete problem. He knows how to do things like this."

The president, at Powell's recommendation, decided on the night of Sept. 11 to create an international anti-terror coalition, and told his secretary of state to put it together. Powell seized on the chance to tap foreign governments' fears of terrorism and enlist their help in finding and uprooting the terrorists' network.

He pressed U.S. diplomatic missions abroad to lock statements of support into commitments, saying in one message, "Even many nations with whom we have serious differences are stepping forward." Since Sept. 11, Powell has met with a stream of foreign ministers and heads of government and logged more than 140 phone calls.

He also dispatched high-level envoys on sensitive missions. His deputy and best friend, Richard Armitage, flew to Moscow, where he persuaded President Vladimir V. Putin to reverse years of Russian policy and accept having U.S. troops on former Soviet territory bordering Afghanistan. Two other top aides, John Bolton and Richard Haass, negotiated with the volatile Central Asian states and the exiled king of Afghanistan.

"He's demonstrated he understands what engagement is all about," said retired Gen. George Joulwan, the former NATO commander. "We should have been doing it all along, but better late than never."

But it comes at a price, in the form of new foreign aid or granting certain countries immunity from criticism. And, a senior U.S. official acknowledged, it circumscribes U.S. freedom of action. Although Bush put all terrorists "of global reach" on notice, Powell advocated that, as the initial response, the United States limit itself to destroying bin Laden and al-Qaida, which the secretary calls bin Laden's "holding company."

Others in the administration, notably Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, wanted a broader initial response and pushed to change the Middle East landscape that nurtures such terrorist groups by toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Powell left no one in doubt he had won the argument when he said in a television interview that he would "let Mr. Wolfowitz speak for himself."

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