When Colin Powell's offering rolled across the screen last month during the entertainment night of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers' annual meeting, the chortling crowd suddenly quieted. Was that really President Bush, in a video clip, hamming it up with the American secretary of state?
It was. "Colin, we have to talk. I'm worried about your ASEAN performance," says the president, shown on the phone and hinting at Mr. Powell's less-than-melodious singing performance a year earlier. "Look, Colin, we're a proud nation. I hired you to be the best. Start practicing."
The skit which included another clip "reporting" that "the White House has begun a secret search to replace the secretary of state ... after last year's performance at ASEAN" revealed Powell's ease with self-deprecating wit. But it was also an opportunity to bring a little levity to a deeper concern: that relations between the White House and Powell's State Department could use a little fine-tuning of their own.
With most of the president's senior advisers from Vice President Dick Cheney to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice stepping up the tempo of war-drum beatings over Iraq, Powell is increasingly seen as the odd man out. He's the sole military man of the bunch, yet he is the one who advises caution, emphasizes the importance of setting the legal groundwork for any eventual military action, and makes it a priority to bring friends and allies on board.
Powell represents a more traditional view of American foreign policy. This view is more multilateral than unilateral, in which military action is not ruled out but is something of a last resort. It's a view dismissed by many in the administration as out of touch with America's role and unparalleled power in the world today.
This helps explain why a determinedly cheerful Powell sees his role as more important than ever before. He views himself as a voice for caution and global engagement with a president who, on Iraq at least, has yet to set a definitive course of action.
As Powell heads off on another trip Monday to attend the closing sessions of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, and to visit several other African countries the nation's first African-American secretary of state is pursuing some issues dear to his heart: global development, the battle against HIV/AIDS, and US-Africa relations. But he is also demonstrating the kind of long-range, engage-the-folks diplomacy that may cause some eyes to roll in today's Washington, but that Powell sees as a key part of America's role in the world.
"There is no question that Powell is genuine in his interest in these issues, as he is in his belief in an American diplomacy committed to working with others to address the world's problems. The question is whether or not he is really speaking for anyone else in the administration," says Karl Inderfurth, former undersecretary of state for South Asian affairs. "But even with the tide rising against him," he adds, "he's willing to bide his time and continue patiently working the problem."
It's a demeanor and approach to foreign policy that apparently sit well not just with the American public, but with many leaders and regular people around the world. Powell regularly comes out on top in surveys of how Americans rate their leaders scoring even higher than a popular George W. Bush. And Powell was a hit when he did an MTV segment last year, addressing issues like AIDS and condom use that aren't always popular with the administration.
Foreign diplomats say Powell represents what many people in the world think America should be open and generous with the world, and with an ear to other points of view. The secretary looks all the better, they add, because the United States under Mr. Bush appears determined to hew its own path in the world, whether it's about greenhouse gases, the International Criminal Court, or now Iraq.
"Powell is the international community's great white hope," says a Pakistani diplomat, grinning at his own irony.
The White House-State Department dissonance starts at style and reverberates to more substantive differences. But as everyone from State Department officials to Powell confidants insists, the retired general is first a soldier who doesn't include the word "disloyalty" in his lexicon.
"He's a loyal soldier. He's not going to allow daylight to develop between him and the president," says James Lindsay, a foreign-policy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "So while he'll never undermine a presidential decision, he will work hard to influence the decision before it's made, and the way it's implemented after."
An example is Bush's "axis of evil" pronouncement in this year's State of the Union address. Those were not words Powell endorsed. But when the secretary encountered grumbling discontent in his agency over the concept, he nipped it in the bud, State Department sources say, making clear that their job was to implement what Bush had decided.
Still, that didn't stop Powell from meeting with the foreign minister of North Korea during the ASEAN meeting, as a first step toward a possible reestablishment of dialogue with one member of the "evil axis" club.
On the Middle East, Powell also long sided with European leaders in the belief that Yasser Arafat is the Palestinians' representative and thus the man to deal with. But when Bush declared that the Palestinians needed new leadership effectively dismissing Mr. Arafat as a viable negotiating partner Powell went along, though he still meets with Arafat's lieutenants.
The characterization of Powell as increasingly shut out of the White House inner circle of influential voices also overlooks the victories Powell has won this year, sources add.
Bush's decision to accept a written agreement with Russia on nuclear-arms reduction more than the mere handshake Bush had wanted has Powell stamped all over it. The president's decision to attend a development conference in Monterrey, Mexico, last spring to announce a major increase in American foreign aid was also a Powell coup.
True, his victories are not always complete. "Where Powell hasn't always succeeded is in getting the president to translate the rhetorical coups into policy," says Mr. Lindsay.
Of course, the next big test of Powell's influence with Bush will be Iraq, many observers say.
Powell is suspect for some in the administration because, as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff during the Gulf War, he is seen as part of what was done wrong back then such as letting Iraq's Saddam Hussein get away.
Still, Powell was one of the first officials to speak, in congressional testimony last February, of the administration's willingness to see the US remove President Hussein on its own if Bush decided that was necessary. And while Powell almost systematically puts military action at the end of a list of possible ways to rid the world of Hussein, he clearly supports the goal.
"Let's be clear about this: There's never been any question from the first day in Colin Powell's mind about the need to get rid of Saddam Hussein," says Dennis Ross, a former lead US negotiator on the Middle East peace process. "But he has a keen interest in how and when that's done, that first there is a legal position established, and that the administration takes the case to our partners and others in the region."
Powell emphasizes that the president is still studying his options on Iraq, so he'll continue to press his point. "We're in a pre-decision stage on Iraq," says one senior State Department official. "Once decisions are made, people all along the chain fall into line."
In the meantime, Powell pursues other areas of interest like Africa that he thinks matter over the long haul.
"He knows he going to win some and lose some, but what's important to him is that he's in the ring," says Mr. Inderfurth. "He's already learned that if not this round, or even the one after that, eventually he's going to land a few punches."
Born in New York City to Luther and Maud Powell, who had immigrated to the US from Jamaica. Was raised in the South Bronx.
Attended New York City public schools and graduated from the City College of New York, where he earned a bachelor's degree in geology. Also received an MBA from George Washington University.
Was a professional soldier for 35 years and rose to the rank of four-star general. Served his last assignment as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the highest military position in the Defense Department. Oversaw Operation Desert Storm in the 1991 Gulf War.
Sworn in as the 65th secretary of state in 2001.
Has been awarded two Presidential Medals of Freedom, the President's Citizens Medal, and the Congressional Gold Medal.
Is married to the former Alma Vivian Johnson. Has a son, Michael, and daughters Linda and Anne. Also has grandsons Jeffrey and Bryan.