Powell again is `reluctant warrior'

Iraq: The secretary of state's efforts to slow U.S. momentum to war have pit him against President Bush's more conservative advisers.

September 08, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Just as he did a dozen years ago, Colin L. Powell is playing the role of "reluctant warrior" in an administration preparing for possible military action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The secretary of state worries that a war, particularly one in which the United States fights alone, could destabilize the Middle East and undermine the international coalition he has carefully tended since Sept. 11 to fight a global battle against the al-Qaida terror network, associates say.

He wants to take the time to build international pressure on Iraq, starting with a new push to resume United Nations weapons inspections, while showing the Arab world that the United States remains committed to a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Powell may yet prevail with his constituency of one -- President Bush -- in slowing the momentum toward war. Bush's decision, announced Wednesday, to seek a resolution of congressional support and to make his case against Iraq this week before the U.N. General Assembly shows that Powell's views are being heard.

But his is just one voice among several that the president listens to and respects. And Powell holds a mixed record in winning over his commander in chief on matters of war and peace.

As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1990, he fell out of step with Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, during the buildup to the Persian Gulf war.

When in September 1990, he urged the president to consider relying on U.N.-imposed sanctions to strangle Iraq into surrendering Kuwait, the elder Bush listened and then dismissed his argument: "That's very interesting. It's good to consider all angles. But I really don't think we have time for sanctions to work."

In that instance, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney had a closer read on the president's views and on Saddam Hussein's intentions.

In his 1996 autobiography, Powell wrote that he was "guilty" of being a "reluctant warrior."

"War is a deadly game; I do not believe in spending the lives of Americans lightly," he wrote in explanation of his stance.

A similar scenario is playing out now, with the president's views hanging in the balance. Cheney, now vice president, has become a forceful advocate for preemptive action to topple the Iraqi dictator, aligning himself with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Cheney says he fears that Hussein could develop nuclear weapons "fairly soon," threatening the region, and perhaps the United States, with mass death, and has seen troubling signs of Iraqi links to al-Qaida terrorists. A renewal of U.N. weapons inspections, he warned two weeks ago, could lull the world into a false sense of security.

Powell, for his part, also says that the Iraqi dictator has to be removed, but doesn't speak with the same urgency as Cheney and Rumsfeld. He believes weapons inspections are an essential first step in trying to disarm Iraq, as well as in building world support for future military action. Like former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, who also served in the first Bush administration, Powell is skeptical that Hussein would share his dangerous arsenal with terror groups.

And unlike some of the administration's hard-liners, Powell is concerned that a U.S. attack on Iraq could jeopardize ties with other oil-producing nations in the Persian Gulf and thinks the United States must continue to make a visible effort in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"He wants to examine the military question, the diplomatic question, the effects on our other interests, and come up with a realistic plan," for ousting Hussein, an aide said.

This internal administration dispute is just the latest in a series that has pitted Powell and his top aides at the State Department against Rumsfeld and his more conservative advisers at the Pentagon. Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice have often tilted toward Rumsfeld.

Bush, who entered office with little foreign policy experience, is "well served" by hearing strong competing views from such seasoned advisors, says Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Illinois Republican who chairs the House International Relations Committee. Rumsfeld, Powell and Rice "are a pretty heady brew."

Powell's relationship with Bush "is easy, familial and with a lot of mutual respect," says a senior White House official who has watched the two men together. "There's a lot of joshing that goes on, a lot of laughter."

Bush, doing what the official calls his "country-boy shtick," will tease Powell about "the striped-pants set"; the secretary will tease Bush about Texas.

Overseas, Powell is widely viewed as a key moderating influence within the administration. "He's the tendon that keeps the administration even remotely connected to the international system," says a congressional official.

"His approach to dealing with the problems of our region is quite reasonable and reflects a deep understanding of the issues we face," says Jordan's ambassador to Washington, Karim Kawar.

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