WASHINGTON - For months, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has been the Bush administration's leading advocate of diplomacy, patiently applied, to rally the international community behind a campaign of pressure on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to cooperate with United Nations inspectors.
Yesterday, responding to the U.N. inspectors' report, he sounded less like a diplomat. "Iraq's time for choosing peaceful disarmament is fast coming to an end," he declared.
Powell insists that he has been consistent throughout, arguing that he has always supported diplomacy backed by force. But to Powell's friends and allies in and out of the administration, the shift in the secretary of state's tone has come about in part for personal reasons - he is said to be truly exasperated by the French opposition to war - but also for tactical reasons.
With President Bush seemingly determined to disarm Hussein by force, Powell cannot afford to be a secretary of state out of tune with his president.
Powell said yesterday: "Hang any label you want on me. I'm a great believer in diplomacy and a great believer in finding a peaceful solution. But I also recognize that when somebody will not accept a peaceful solution by doing their part of creating a peaceful solution, one must never rule out the use of force to implement the will of the international community, but more importantly to protect our people and to protect the world."
Powell's change in posture from apostle of patience to champion of rapid action was described by one administration official observing it from a distance as "astounding."
But people close to him say it is rooted in cool strategy. Powell remains determined to convince Europeans that their best interest will lie in backing the United States if it decides to go to war.
Despite the fiery French contention that "nothing, nothing" justifies war, many in the administration think that if the inspections are allowed to play themselves out through next month, the French might be at the United States' side.
"We haven't given up on the process of the United Nations," said an aide to Powell. "But, certainly, even Powell is now talking within the administration about the option of going to war without United Nations approval."
Still, Powell is described by close aides as feeling as strongly as ever that an attack on Iraq without the support of France, Russia, China and other nations would pose a dangerous risk of igniting opposition and perhaps turmoil in the Arab world.
But these aides say he understands that U.S. allies have to be reeled in without making it seem to the Pentagon that is making too many concessions to bring them around.
Tough talk enhances that objective, people close to the secretary say.
"He knows that if war can't be avoided, it must be done with the backing of the U.N.," said a foreign diplomat close to Powell. "He thinks he can achieve that goal by talking, talking and talking again. But he also has to look tough in order to get the administration's hawks on board."
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last weekend, former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey asked Powell, who was raised as an Anglican, why the United States seemed determined to exercise the "hard power" of force rather than the "soft power" of economic and humanitarian aid.
"I don't think I have anything to be ashamed of, or apologize for, with respect to what America has done for the world," Powell replied. "There comes a time when soft power or talking with evil will not work - where, unfortunately, hard power is the only thing that works."