Colin Powell: Old Soldier Least Likely to Fade Away

Retiring Joint Chiefs chairman redefined Pentagon's hierarchy; now the Oval Office may beckon

FOUR-STAR Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sat up in his chair and appeared to shrug. He managed to look both humble and larger than anyone in the room.

``I'm an infantry officer who kind of ended up here,'' he said.

In this case ``here'' meant not a goodbye breakfast with Pentagon reporters but his position in life: top military officer in the United States, possible future politician, certain smash hit on the motivational lecture circuit. A man with a book deal big enough to buy his own heavy armored division.

If Colin Powell is just an infantry officer, then Ross Perot is nothing but a computer salesman with big ears. ``All I've tried to do is what I thought best with every problem,'' General Powell said when asked to sum up his career.

Starting tomorrow, he will be doing that while wearing civilian clothing. He retires from the Army today, handing his duties over to the new Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. John Shalikashvili, who was named Powell's successor last month.

General Shali, as he is commonly known, will inherit the job at an unusually delicate time. As the size of the military continues to shrink to come in line with budget targets, it will be asked to reorient itself to tough New World Order tasks. Peacekeeping in Somalia has proved hard enough. A commitment of tens of thousands of US troops to police duty in Bosnia would be even more difficult.

Newly retired Powell, on the other hand, will continue to be pressed on his political future. He is one of the most admired public figures in America, and many in Washington assume that he is weighing an entry into big-time elective politics.

The scenario runs this way: Powell declares himself a Republican. (So what if he may be a Democrat - there's more opportunity in the out-of-power GOP.) Instantly, he becomes a Republican version of Ted Kennedy in the 1970s, the heavyweight who everyone assumes could have the presidential nomination any time he wants.

That position didn't work out well for Senator Kennedy, but never mind. Powell hasn't said he won't run, and to eager Washington ears his ``no comment'' sounds as if it comes from a man with a plan.

``I am inclined ... to retire and quietly go into private life and see what the future holds,'' Powell said.

But his political skills are the main strength he brought to his stint as the country's top uniformed officer. After two tours in Vietnam, Powell spent 17 of his next 22 years in Washington-based jobs. The tag of ``political general'' was slapped on him, he says, after he served in the White House as national security adviser to President Reagan.

His most important legacy as chief may be the way he solidified the power of the Joint Chiefs chairmanship in the wake of mid-1980s political reforms that strengthened the job at the expense of the subordinate service chiefs.

During the Gulf war, for instance, Powell skillfully rallied the chiefs. He listened to them carefully while avoiding formal votes. He became their ``proxy and mouthpiece,'' according to a new book on the war by Washington Post reporter Rick Atkinson.

Powell himself had initially favored strangling Saddam Hussein with economic sanctions, Mr. Atkinson reports. But once President Bush made the decision to fight, Powell served as an invaluable smoother-over and go-between between the prickly Gen. Nor-man Schwarzkopf and civilian authorities.

On Capitol Hill, Powell was a formidable witness. He could, in essence, filibuster in hearings - talking cogently for 15 minutes or more on single questions. ``It was almost impossible to even graze him,'' says a Senate aide who often differed with the positions Powell would present.

This aide complains that Powell provided poor leadership on the key question of the future size of the military force, however. During the latter years of the Bush administration he continued to begrudge cuts that were all but inevitable.

The controversy over allowing gays to serve openly in the military also may not have been Powell's finest hour. He walked a fine line between presenting the views of the military beneath him and defying the wishes of the commander in chief.

If there is a key unfinished challenge he leaves behind him, it is the formulation of policies and doctrine regarding peacekeeping missions. As the experience in Somalia shows, such operations can start with clear goals and limits yet eventually develop into quagmires.

``There will be murkiness'' in peacekeeping, despite efforts to set parameters, Powell said.

In his confirmation hearing last week, Shalikashvili said one direction the US military might take is to associate, through NATO, with Russia and other ex-Soviet bloc nations in a kind of loose peacekeeping alliance. The key, said the incoming chief, would be hard-nosed decisions about when it was in the US interest to get involved.

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