Colin Powell's quiet influence

Colin Powell could have run for president. He would have been a shoo-in for vice president. But soldier Powell preferred to serve in appointive office.

And so he works at the sometimes thankless job of secretary of State, a multilateralist amid the unilateralists. The bellicose warning by President Bush to North Korea, Iran, and Iraq in his State of the Union address did not go down well in the State Department, but Mr. Powell told his subordinates to stick by the letter and spirit of Mr. Bush's words. There would be no daylight between him and the White House, he made clear.

Powell operates mostly out of the spotlight. Reflecting the views of America's allies, he asked President Bush to reconsider a decision to refuse prisoner- of-war status to the captives in Guantanamo, Cuba. Bush ruled that the Geneva Convention applied to Taliban prisoners, but not to Al Qaeda prisoners.

The secretary's influence behind the scenes can be tracked in the comprehensive eight-part series in The Washington Post detailing the strenuous 10 days of deliberations in the White House, starting on Sept. 11.

At a meeting of a half-dozen principal advisers the next day, Sept. 12, Powell laid down the line that the target would be "terrorism in its broadest sense," a formulation that has governed administration policy ever since.

On Sept. 13, the secretary reported to the National Security Council that Pakistan was on board. The president said that this was the State Department at its best.

On Sept. 14, the president choked up at a meeting of his advisers as he prepared to speak at the National Cathedral. Powell passed him a note cautioning against being too emotional. Bush held it up and said Powell had counseled him, "Dear Mr. President, don't break down." Loud laughter all around.

At a Sept. 15 meeting, Powell opposed the Pentagon's proposal for an attack on Iraq. He said, "The coalition partners are all with you, every one, but they will go away if you hit Iraq." Iraq has not been attacked - at least so far.

On Sept. 18, the president and his advisers reviewed a draft of his speech to Congress that evening. Powell noted a line serving notice on states that have supported terrorism and suggested that it be amended to read, "States that continue to support terrorism." Bush adopted the distinction between past and future behavior.

All this while Powell was trying to keep up with Israel and the Palestinians, India and Pakistan, and the other hot spots bubbling up around the world. Between appearances on Capitol Hill, he spent a day in the Bahamas meeting with Caribbean leaders about the latest crisis in Haiti.

Colin Powell reminds me of Gen. George Marshall, the soldier who gave diplomacy a good name.

• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for NPR.

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