Disrespected, not done

August 02, 2002|By Clarence Page

NEW YORK -- Secretary of State Colin Powell must be feeling a bit like Mark Twain did after hearing that his obituary had been published in the New York Journal.

"The report of my death was an exaggeration," Twain remarked.

Or maybe the retired general feels like Rodney Dangerfield, who "don't get no respect."

Either way, questions have resurfaced recently in the major media about whether Mr. Powell is on the verge of quitting his post out of frustration with the Bush White House over the Middle East, overseas family planning funds and other thorny issues.

Confronted by reporters last week, Mr. Powell denied that he was leaving. Instead, he suggested that databases bulge with premature reports of his imminent departure dating back almost to his arrival.

"I can go back and do a LexisNexis search and [find many such stories]," he said. "You've been doing them every two weeks since I came in here last year and I am sure you will keep doing them. They make great reading."

They apparently make great writing, too, as a departure from the usual repetitive tedium of debates between the Bush administration and the Bush administration. A quick surf across the Internet turns up overseas headlines even bolder than the ones published here.

"Powell: `Bastards Won't Drive Me Out,'" shouts London's Sunday Telegraph.

"Powell: `Read My Lips, I'm Not Quitting,'" roars The Straits Times of Singapore.

Behind the will-he-stay-or-will-he-go stories, serious policy differences have bubbled up within the Bush administration over what the U.S. role should be in the world.

Following the pattern of previous administrations, President Bush's foreign policy heads constantly jostle with each other for his ear. Unlike such predecessors as John Foster Dulles or Henry Kissinger, Mr. Powell has been blocked or scuttled on several important issues in recent months.

The family planning dispute was particularly embarrassing -- on a global scale. Last year, Mr. Powell praised the "invaluable work" the United Nations Population Fund has done around the world. Last week, Mr. Powell, acting as megaphone for the administration, withheld $34 million in funds designated for the agency.

The reason? The administration claimed that if the United Nations received the money, this would help Beijing to "implement more effectively" the forced sterilizations and abortions that China's one-child policy too often has encouraged.

Yet, a task force that Mr. Powell sent to China found "no evidence" in May of such a connection and recommended releasing the funds. The United Nations, as a matter of policy, opposes such family planning coercion, too. Quite the opposite, in fact. The loss of the U.S. funds, which are 12 percent of the United Nation's $270 million family planning budget, will mean 2 million more unwanted pregnancies, 800,000 more abortions, almost 5,000 more dead mothers and more than 75,000 more dead children under age 5 worldwide, according to the United Nations.

During an invitational lunch meeting with African-American journalists, I asked U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan about Mr. Powell's actions. He called the secretary of state's reversal "very unfortunate," then added, "I think the reversal came from someone else in the administration." Mr. Annan did not say who the "someone else" was, but administration sources say the family planning issue, a hot-button among social conservatives in Mr. Bush's political base, was pushed by Mr. Bush's political advisers.

More widely reported are Mr. Powell's battles with administration hawks over the Middle East, particularly the eagerness of Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, to topple Saddam Hussein by any means necessary, including a unilateral U.S. invasion.

Mr. Powell wants to go slow on that option, which is wise.

Mindful perhaps of his own two tours in the Vietnam War, he wants us to avoid future quagmires like that one, which makes him a valuable advocate for caution, pragmatism and common sense.

The most recent Harris poll shows Mr. Bush's positive approval ratings to be an impressive 62 percent in July, but Mr. Powell's are an even more impressive 76 percent.

Mr. Powell still holds the respect of the American public. Too bad he hasn't found more in the White House.

Clarence Page is a columnist with the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun.

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