Man in the middle

April 11, 2003|By Juan Williams

WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is not quitting.

Mr. Powell is in yet another fight within his administration. Last week he took the unusual step of sending a letter to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, seeking to stop the Pentagon from taking control of humanitarian assistance in postwar Iraq. He argues that if the military is the face of authority in postwar Iraq, it will appear to the world to be an occupation, not liberation.

In addition, Mr. Powell has been contradicted by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who said the United States and Britain had risked "life and blood" to liberate Iraq and will not turn over rebuilding Iraq to the United Nations. Mr. Powell has said the United States is ready to join with the United Nations and even with war critics such as France and Russia to rebuild Iraq.

These latest fights come after New York Times columnist Bill Keller called on Mr. Powell to quit because "even if you believe the war is justified, the route to it has been an ugly display of American opportunism and bullying" that has damaged America's image around the world.

The political left wants Mr. Powell to quit to express opposition to the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein. The right wants him to quit because he encouraged the Bush administration to take the public risk of seeking U.N. approval to use military power to oust the Iraqi leader - and then failed to get the support.

I asked him recently if he was listening to these suggestions that he quit. He replied that he was in sync with President Bush and had the resolve to stay in his job because Mr. Bush "values my services." But then he said, "The American people seem to be quite satisfied with the job I'm doing as secretary of state."

Recent polls show that he is viewed favorably by about 85 percent of Americans. Between 76 percent and 83 percent of Americans, depending on the poll, approve of the way he is handling his job.

But those startlingly high numbers come at a cost of great contradiction. People with vastly different approaches to world affairs view Mr. Powell approvingly.

For example, former President Bill Clinton, who opposed the war, recently praised Mr. Powell for being a good, loyal soldier for Mr. Bush's policies and following orders.

Harry Belafonte, another war critic, said Mr. Powell and Ms. Rice, both blacks, are following orders from Mr. Bush in the same way that house slaves took orders from their masters. Insult aside, the deeper assault is the charge that Mr. Powell and Ms. Rice do not think for themselves. It is a play on the racial stereotype of black people lacking the intelligence or the character to reach a conclusion on their own and voice it. This line of attack has been used against prominent black Americans throughout history.

While Mr. Powell is being hectored by the left he is also being undercut by critics on the right. Loyal Bush supporters caricature him as a dove who was slow to advocate using military force against Iraq. Mr. Powell's insistence on going to the United Nations, these critics charge, cost the United States time and allowed Iraq to better prepare for the assault.

Some complaints from either end of the political spectrum can be written off as petty. But the real challenge to Mr. Powell is that he was the architect of failed diplomacy.

That failure allowed Mr. Hussein the comfort of seeing the U.N. Security Council break down in the face of attempts to get it to endorse military action to disarm him. It allowed the United States to be cast as a war-mongering bully in world opinion. And, in the Arab world, it allowed the tyrannical Mr. Hussein to become a popular underdog as he battled the American Goliath.

Mr. Powell contends that his diplomatic efforts have not failed.

"We did succeed in getting all the nations of the Security Council to join us in supporting U.N. Resolution 1441," he said during the interview. "That was a major diplomatic triumph when you consider that just four years earlier, when the U.N. was considering an inspection regime, a much more modest inspection regime, Russia, China and France abstained from that vote. This time they voted for 1441."

Mr. Powell argues that the only point on which he failed to garner diplomatic consensus was the lack of efficacy of U.N.-led weapons inspections in Iraq. France, Russia and China remain convinced that the inspections were working, and they stood in the way of a second resolution calling for military operations against Mr. Hussein.

But citing what he calls "the story that hasn't been told," Mr. Powell regards his getting the Bush administration to go through the U.N. process as a victory.

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