Powell: A good soldier or a good loser?

In book, secretary of state seems more salesman for Bush than senior adviser

April 21, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Colin L. Powell prides himself on being a good soldier, a steadfast supporter of his commander in chief. "I don't quit on long patrols," he says.

But revelations in Bob Woodward's new book flesh out what, for an old battlefield commander and bureaucratic infighter, is a less flattering image: that of a good loser, a man who lent considerable prestige to President Bush to sell a war on which Powell failed to press his own, often conflicting, views.

Powell is also portrayed as a man whose influence, in the run-up to the war, was vastly outweighed by that of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Most pointed, perhaps, is Woodward's assertion that Bush did not even seek the advice of his top diplomat, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before deciding to invade Iraq.

Since the book was released, the secretary of state has strenuously rejected Woodward's account that he was kept in the dark about Bush's decision to go to war and that he learned of it only after the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was informed.

"This is becoming quite unreal," Powell told reporters yesterday. "A suggestion that somehow a plan was presented to Prince Bandar that I was not familiar with is just flat wrong."

Powell also took issue with the notion that he was reluctant to lay out his policy differences with the president. He said his job requires him "to give him my best advice on all aspects of every foreign policy issue he faces."

But Woodward's Plan of Attack buttresses what had become a widespread view: that Powell's views on the war and its aftermath "had little influence on the direction of the administration," said Lee Feinstein, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"When the administration has moved in Powell's direction, it's been late and often half-hearted," Feinstein said. "That is a function of the unusual influence of the vice president and the secretary of defense."

In a way, Powell's protestations are curious: He is widely believed to have cooperated with Woodward, in part to help shape the book's portrayals of him and other officials.

The internal battles over the war and its aftermath follow previous instances in which Powell's clout as a foreign policy adviser has been questioned. These cases include Bush's decision in 2001 to abandon the Clinton administration's negotiating stance with North Korea and approach to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

His aides, though, note other cases in which the secretary of state has ultimately prevailed over administration hard-liners.

Examples are Bush's agreement with Powell to seek a large international coalition against al-Qaida, a coalition that remains intact; and his decision to pursue diplomacy on the North Korean nuclear crisis.

But on the issues that have come to define the Bush presidency -- war and reconstruction in Iraq, pre-emptive action against threats and policy on the Middle East and the Arab world -- Powell and his department have often been outflanked by Cheney, Rumsfeld and their hard-driving aides or the White House staff.

If Woodward is correct, Powell did win one key argument before the invasion of Iraq: Over the wishes of a skeptical Cheney, he persuaded Bush to seek United Nations support for a confrontation with Saddam Hussein and to back U.N. inspections to hunt for Iraq's suspected banned weapons.

Powell secured solid international backing -- and a 15-0 vote of the U.N. Security Council -- for this approach, which he hoped would contain Hussein's aggressive intentions so that war could be avoided. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain likewise hoped that inspections would cause a "crumbling within the regime," the president told Woodward.

But soon after inspections began, Bush became impatient, thinking Hussein was stalling and might "kind of skate through once again," as he told the author. With U.S. forces building up in the region, pressure mounted on Bush to decide whether to stick with the process or move toward war.

When the decisive moment came, Bush didn't look to Powell for advice, Woodward says. Instead, the president turned to him as a national and international salesman, drawing on the heroic status Powell gained during the 1991 Persian Gulf war and public approval ratings that surpassed Bush's own.

Powell set out to present to the world the administration's indictment of Hussein, delivering a televised case to the Security Council of Hussein's deception, his bid to expand an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and his links to terrorists.

Powell continues to say that his presentation, which placed his own credibility at the service of Bush's war aims, was largely correct. But he concedes that the failure to uncover illicit weapons lessens the "real and present danger" Iraq posed.

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