The good soldier?

May 07, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Once again, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, although wearing the striped-pants uniform of an American diplomat, is being called on by the Bush administration to be the good soldier he was for so many years in Army greens.

Now he's obliged to apologize for the president's rush to endorse Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to keep some West Bank settlements and bar resettlement in Israel of Palestinian refugees, which was subsequently rejected by Mr. Sharon's Likud Party.

Along with recommitting the United States to renegotiating the issues as part of the U.N.-driven Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Mr. Powell said at the United Nations on Tuesday, "We are in conversation with our other Arab friends to see what assurances and comments they may need from us to make sure they know that the president has not abandoned them."

President Bush's premature siding with Mr. Sharon on his stated limits on Israel's withdrawal from Gaza has seriously compounded the American president's image as poison among Arab nations in the Middle East. And Mr. Powell's willingness to pull the president's chestnuts out of the fire has become a familiar characterization by now.

It was most conspicuously demonstrated in February 2003 in his appearance before the U.N. Security Council, in which he made the U.S. case for military action against Iraq - a case about which he apparently had severe reservations himself.

Just how good a soldier Mr. Powell was then is illustrated in detail in the best-selling book Plan of Attack by Bob Woodward, who spent more than three hours interviewing President Bush and hours more with other key administration figures, including Mr. Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Early in the book, Mr. Powell is quoted as characterizing as "lunacy" an invasion of Iraq, which was advocated by administration hawks, and counseling Mr. Bush: "Don't let yourself get pushed into anything until you are ready for it, or until you think there is a real reason for it. This is not as easy as it is being presented."

Later, in August, Mr. Woodward quotes Mr. Powell as warning Mr. Bush that if he invades Iraq, "you are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people. ... It's going to suck the oxygen out of everything. ... It's nice to say we can do it unilaterally, except you can't." So Mr. Powell tells the president, "You can still make a pitch for a coalition or U.N. action to do what needs to be done."

Mr. Powell also said, according to the book: "If you take it to the U.N., you've got to recognize that they might be able to solve it. In which case there's no war.."

In these and other comments, Mr. Powell made clear his opposition to the invasion and his warnings about what might go wrong.

The book also underscores the internal battle Mr. Powell was fighting for the president's ear and confidence against the hawks in the administration, especially Vice President Dick Cheney, whose categorical claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction astonished him.

Yet when it came to making the case for war before the Security Council and the world via television, Mr. Bush turned to Mr. Powell, according to the book, not only because he was the chief diplomat but also because it was recognized that he had doubts himself and "you have the credibility to do it."

So Mr. Powell agreed, even to the point of exaggerating evidence of weapons of mass destruction, and put his strong reputation on the line once more.

The gnawing question remains, however, why Mr. Powell never concluded that as a good soldier he had an obligation to himself and to the American people to act on what he really believed.

It is a question he could well be pondering now, in the wake of all that has gone wrong in Iraq.

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

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