A gulf opens around Colin Powell

Strong on reputation, the moderate leader could be marginalized on a team that is heavy with conservatives.

As a retired general, a war hero, and a public figure with enormous popularity, Colin Powell has all the makings of a forceful secretary of State.

Yet as he takes office, Mr. Powell finds himself in the middle of a power struggle within President George W. Bush's national security team, which in recent weeks has begun to cut a decidedly conservative profile.

There are already signs that Powell, whom many see as a moderate, could be marginalized - although it has yet to be seen how he will react and try to assert himself.

As it is shaping up, this split among top-level GOP policymakers could touch some of the most important issues in US foreign policy, ranging from Iraq to Russia to China.

On one side is Powell and the State Department, which is becoming a shelter for moderate GOP foreign-policy makers. On the other side is Vice President Dick Cheney, already expected to be an unusually powerful No. 2, and the Pentagon, which will be headed by the formidable Donald Rumsfeld.

It is unclear how these different ideologies will work together.

"If the president is lucky, he will have these different opinions well defined and presented for his decision," says Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan Defense official who heads the conservative Center for Security Policy here.

On the other hand, says Ivo Daalder of the Washington-based Brookings Institution, there is great potential for conflict.

"There are a number of signs that the chief executive officer [Bush] has appointed very strong individuals who may not be able to work together," says Mr. Daalder, a former National Security Council official.

So far, the fissure in the Bush Cabinet has centered around the choice of secretary of Defense. Powell was said to have favored Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R). Mr. Cheney and other conservatives, however, opposed Mr. Ridge, concerned that he was too liberal. Dan Coats, a former senator from Indiana, was considered for the post, but eventually rejected because of worries that he would not have the stature to stand up to Powell.

Bush and Cheney eventually settled on Mr. Rumsfeld, an experienced and sometimes combative GOP stalwart who is taking the top Pentagon post for a second time. Although Powell publicly applauded the decision, observers say he was slighted in the process.

First, stories were leaked to the press about Powell's disagreements with Cheney over potential nominees. Then, when Rumsfeld got the nod, Powell was not consulted about the decision. Afterward, neither Bush nor Cheney informed him - that task was left to a subordinate.

Powell is expected to lose another battle over the No. 2 Pentagon position, deputy secretary of Defense, which is likely to go to Paul Wolfowitz, a strong conservative who, on paper at least, would seem to have significant differences with Powell.

Powell's favorite candidate, Richard Armitage, is likely to take refuge in the State Department.

Taken together, the Defense appointments reflect the Bush team's concern that Powell not be too dominant a figure. It is also an indication that Powell may have made his greatest contribution to the incoming administration with his reputation. "Powell's nomination had nothing to do with his policy," says Daalder. "Bush used Powell to reassure the American people that he was a grown-up on foreign policy."

The most contentious issue between Powell and the conservatives could be the development and deployment of a national missile defense. Although Powell says he supports NMD, he indicated in his confirmation hearing last week that the system should be worked out with caution, taking into account the concerns of the Europeans and the Russians. Bush and Rumsfeld, on the other hand, have indicated that they would go forward with the system even if it requires abrogating the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty.

Another battleground could be Iraq. Powell, when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was criticized for not going far enough in the Gulf War, and not finishing off Saddam Hussein. At times, he has said international sanctions against Iraq were not working. Other Bush allies, particularly Mr. Wolfowitz, have advocated a more aggressive US role, such as cultivating the Iraqi opposition to overthrow Saddam.

Finally, China could present a problem for a divided Bush national security team. The moderates want to continue an ambiguous policy regarding what the US would do if there were a conflict between China and Taiwan. The conservatives think the US should explicitly say it would rush to Taiwan's defense.

Ultimately, these questions could be answered by a fourth key player, National Security Council Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who has yet to stake out her position. Although she does not have the senior-level experience of the others, she has a close relationship with Bush. During the presidential campaign, she tutored him on foreign affairs.

And, of course, Powell himself will be a major factor. Can he parlay his star power into policy influence? Can he strengthen the State Department, which in recent years has taken a back seat to the president's National Security Council?

"Powell will give the department a more central direction, and he will run a tighter ship," says one State Department official, who has worked through seven administrations. "And I'm sure he'll use his influence to get more money. That will help."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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