ARMY Gen. Colin L. Powell is the right man at the right time to be the nation's top military officer. His appointment as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is historic in that General Powell is the youngest officer so named and the first black. But when the history of this transitional period in US military and diplomatic affairs is written, it will be the talents he has developed over 31 years in uniform that count most.
After the heady years of Ronald Reagan's ``rearm America'' program, the Pentagon is now in an era of relatively lean times (if $305 billion a year can be called ``lean''). The budget is staying relatively flat. Congress has - at long last - forced the closing of questionable military bases. New weapons programs like the Stealth bomber are being pared back. The budget deficit - not the Red Army - is now the ten-foot-tall enemy.
At the same time, Washington and Moscow are in a new era of d'etente. They have agreed to ban a class of nuclear weapons (those of medium range). They are talking seriously about cutting not only long range nukes but chemical and conventional forces as well. They are working cooperatively to stem terrorism in the Middle East. They still are competitors, to be sure, but the destructive steam in the relationship seems largely to have been ventilated.
All of this calls for a Joint Chiefs chairman who knows the world and who knows the lines of power and the corridors of intrigue in Washington. And in Powell Mr. Bush has picked a man who knows and works well in both areas.
He stayed clean on Iran-contra and helped rebuild the National Security Council after the furniture had been broken by Oliver North & Co. He gave the Reagan administration the bad news on the contras (that they no longer had a fighting chance). He played a key role in negotiating the INF Treaty. And he earned the respect of his colleagues on the battlefield and in the White House.
As top military advisor to the President he will need to speak his mind on subjects crucial to national security. And as ranking officer among four-stars he will have to make some tough decisions on limited resources. General Powell's reputation suggests he will have no trouble doing both.