America's new bad cop has world's ear

January 29, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Until last week, President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell were putting on a pretty good version of the old good-cop, bad-cop routine regarding Iraq.

The president was (and continues to be) the bad cop, full of threat and bluster as he made a conspicuous show of his impatience over the pace and skimpy results of the U.N. weapons inspection team. But Mr. Powell was the good cop, tempering his boss' hard line with sweet reasonableness to the point of agreeing the inspectors should be given more time.

Then came the eruption of French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, insisting that the United States had not made its case that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, and threatening to use his veto in the U.N. Security Council to block any new war-sanctioning resolution.

Suddenly the good cop disappeared. In newly tough language, Mr. Powell escalated his insistence that even if Security Council backing can't be achieved, the United States would use force if necessary to bring about Iraqi disarmament.

The American secretary's shift was widely attributed to anger over the French minister's threatened monkey wrench, but Mr. Powell is too experienced and cool a diplomat to be motivated by personal pique.

More likely, his new toughness has come from an awareness that the administration needs a more credible bad cop than the president, whose gun-slinging rhetoric has worn thin, especially in Europe. The same is true about Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose verbal relegation of France and Germany to what he contemptuously called "the old Europe" only enhanced his reputation abroad as another careless bully boy.

So it has become essential that Mr. Powell step in as the believable American bad cop, even though his preference for talking over shooting was well established before the first gulf war and has been reinforced repeatedly in this go-round. The message in his new posture is simple: The Americans really mean business.

Yet Mr. Powell still conveys a level-headedness that tells the world that he has not bought into what Mr. Bush's critics insist is a "rush to war." The criticism has been fueled by the president's continued bursts of impatience.

Of suggestions that Mr. Powell has suddenly become an administration hawk on going to war, the secretary observed the other day: "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 [in] creating a peaceful solution, one must never rule out the use of force to implement the will of the international community."

Mr. Powell, at the same time, obviously recognizes that there is much diplomatic work to be done at the United Nations and time to do it because the sentiment is so strong there for the U.N. inspectors to continue their work for at least a few more weeks.

The reports of chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix and chief nuclear inspector Mohamed ElBaradei, which the administration read as ample proof of Iraqi noncompliance to justify military action, have been seized by most other U.N. members to warrant extending the on-the-ground investigations.

While Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld seem to have forgotten the old motto of that earlier Republican wartime president, Teddy Roosevelt, to talk softly but carry a big stick, Mr. Powell clearly has not. He even plays the bad cop with much more finesse than either of his bombastic administration peers.

Much may now depend on the promised new incriminating intelligence from the United States to convince France, Germany, Russia and China that Iraq is lying about having no weapons of mass destruction or facilities to produce them. Without it, even a more tough-talking Colin Powell may not be enough to bring them around.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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