Powell's falling fortunes

April 29, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - When Secretary of State Colin Powell was asked point-blank on Fox News a week ago whether he shared President Bush's assessment of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as "a man of peace," he bobbed and weaved like a rope-a-doping Muhammad Ali.

The secretary cited "many conversations" with Mr. Sharon in which the Israeli leader said "he remains committed to negotiations that will lead to a Palestinian state. And so, in that regard," Mr. Powell said, "he knows that a political solution is necessary and peace must be made."

Mr. Powell's questioner pressed him: "So, you would share the characterization that he's a man of peace?" The secretary replied: "I think he is interested in making peace. And if that makes him a man of peace, fine. And if Chairman Arafat is similarly interested, then we can go forward."

Such verbal squirming underscored Mr. Powell's dilemma of trying to fulfill his role as even-handed diplomat while the president for whom he works seemed to be lapsing back into a partisan posture. That dilemma has since been complicated in Congress, where House Republicans, led by Majority Whip Tom DeLay, are poised to offer a resolution this week expressing "solidarity" with Israel and condemning Palestinian terrorism, in spite of a reported direct plea from Mr. Powell to delay doing so.

The secretary's conspicuous bending over backward to keep diplomatic doors open to both factions in the Arab-Israeli dispute has not sat well with Republican conservatives on Capitol Hill, nor many pro-Israel Democrats. The solidarity resolution is cosponsored by Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos of California.

At the same time, the clear message that Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia brought to Mr. Bush in Texas was that the Arab world did not share the president's assessment of Mr. Sharon as a man of peace.

The president, doing some squirming of his own in Texas, was reminded by a reporter that "Saudi officials have taken strong issue with your characterization of Prime Minister Sharon as a `man of peace' and say that your tolerance of what he's doing risks damage to U.S.-Arab relations." He asked Mr. Bush whether he and Prince Abdullah were "able to bridge differences over that issue."

Mr. Bush responded by choosing to reduce the apparently unproductive talks to a cozy chat between two new buddies.

"One of the really positive things out of this meeting," Mr. Bush said, "was the fact that the crown prince and I established a strong personal bond. We spent a lot of time alone, discussing our respective visions, talking about our families. I was most interested in learning about how he thought about things."

While such comments reaffirm that conducting the serious diplomacy of the United States in the Middle East in this administration falls, fortunately, to the secretary of state, the role may not be personally and politically beneficial to Mr. Powell. As a man attempting to do business with both sides, neither the congressional pressure for a more openly committed American posture behind Israel, nor the anger in the Arab world over Mr. Bush's patience with Mr. Sharon's pace of withdrawal in the West Bank, makes his job easier.

As Mr. Powell slogs through the Middle East morass, something seems to be happening to him that one would scarcely have expected a few years ago when both the Republican and Democratic parties were lusting after him as a possible presidential candidate. He is becoming a controversial figure, particularly in his own party.

In reports of a turf war between the State and Defense Departments over conduct of the war on terrorism and of the Middle East crisis, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld has been getting most of the acclaim, while Mr. Powell is pictured as embattled.

As one of the heroes of the Persian Gulf war, General Powell seemed in position to write his own political ticket, yet declined and settled after the 2000 election to take what is developing as one of the most thankless tasks in Washington.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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