Powell's lonely job

April 14, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - In the conquest of Iraq, the spotlight at home has focused particularly on President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz, reputed to be the mastermind of including the invasion in the administration's war on terrorism.

Throughout the siege of Baghdad, the president obviously dominated the news in spite of generally keeping a low profile and displaying a temperate manner, in contrast to his pre-war belligerence and testy impatience with a United Nations that failed to give specific authorization to use force against Iraq.

Just behind him in significance and even more visible on cable television has been Mr. Rumsfeld. He has maintained his own pre-war aggressiveness and did not hesitate to issue threatening warnings to Syria for actions he deemed detrimental to the U.S. war effort. His daily briefings have bristled with what supporters see as self-confidence and critics as cockiness, but either way he has been front and center.

As for Mr. Wolfowitz, a more shadowy figure, he was pushed to the forefront as a prime salesman abroad and on television talk shows at home for his vision of turning Iraq into a centerpiece of democracy in that region once Saddam Hussein was toppled.

In all this, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, having failed to achieve specific U.N. approval that would have produced a much broader coalition of the willing, is widely seen as having been trumped by the Pentagon team of Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Wolfowitz and that other shadowy hawk, Richard Perle.

Yet Mr. Powell has persevered, functioning with deliberation during the siege of Iraq as the administration fireman, laboring to quench flames of resentment and discontent growing out of American pressures on U.N. members to join Mr. Bush's "coalition of the willing."

Heavily criticized before the shooting started for a paucity of foreign travel during his extensive efforts to court the unwilling by telephone, Mr. Powell at first drew unfavorable comparisons with the globe-trotting of one of his predecessors, James A. Baker III, in the run-up to the first gulf war.

But after the invasion was under way and Mr. Rumsfeld and White House press secretary Ari Fleischer were dominating the domestic airwaves with daily war briefings, Mr. Powell quietly embarked on a mission of smoothing feathers.

He flew to Ankara in the aftermath of the diplomatic fiasco in which the Turkish parliament declined to grant permission for U.S. forces to launch a planned Iraq invasion from the north. He also went to Brussels for meetings with members of NATO and the European Union, undertaking more fence-mending tasks.

Mr. Powell is said to be in disfavor in some quarters of the administration for persuading Mr. Bush to go to the United Nations in the first place, only to suffer a conspicuous diplomatic defeat there at the hands of France, Germany and Russia. But he almost certainly remains the president's most trusted diplomat, in Europe and in the world at large.

Now, with considerable concern in the Middle East and elsewhere about the Bush administration's intentions regarding rebuilding Iraq and fostering democracy there and in the region, Mr. Powell's performance and style as a soldier who turned in his uniform for striped pants may be Mr. Bush's diplomatic weapon.

Fears abound abroad over the Wolfowitz concept of superpower imposition of world peace and stability through pre-emptive war, formalized in a White House national security strategy paper in September and implemented in Iraq.

Other regimes in disfavor, including but not limited to the other members of Mr. Bush's "axis of evil," Iran and North Korea, are wondering whether they will be next. In dissuading all those who harbor such fears, Mr. Powell will continue to be seen as the most moderate, most credible, even the sanest explainer of where this administration is going.

Anti-war critics who feel Mr. Powell should have resigned rather than carry the president's water on invading Iraq will probably sleep better at night knowing he's still on the team.

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

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