Powell's 'big moment': Can he sway a skeptical world?

He brings credibility to historic speech at UN, but success will pivot on the evidence.

He has a passion for weekend garage mechanics, preferring to tinker with the fleet of old Volvos he's assembled instead of the new PT Cruiser he says is too computerized for his abilities.

And although the grease will certainly be gone, Secretary of State Colin Powell is employing the same zest for problem-solving and accomplishment as he takes the Bush administration's case against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime to the United Nations Security Council Wednesday.

State Department officials warned going in that the appearance might not produce an "Adlai Stevenson moment" - referring to the dramatic visual evidence of Soviet missile sites in Cuba that the former US delegate to the UN presented to a doubting world four decades ago. Yet everyone from foreign ministers who have rearranged already-full agendas for the speech, to more common folk around the globe who have developed a respect for America's top diplomat, realize Mr. Powell's speech may well set the course of events for some time to come.

• Will Powell's evidence convince a long slate of doubters that Mr. Hussein has failed the cooperation test, that his regime has links to Al Qaeda, and that he must now be taken on with more than diplomatic means?

• Will his appearance be the turning point that allows the US to assemble something like the "broad coalition" that Powell, a decade ago as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saw as crucial to the Gulf War?

• And will Powell, long seen as a lone "multilateralist" on the Bush national security team, keep the Security Council united on Iraq - or will it split, becoming what even he now foresees as potentially irrelevant to an Iraq conflict?

To a great extent, what makes Powell's appearance so compelling is that the Bush administration's "reluctant warrior" - the man who persuaded President Bush to take the Iraq conflict to the international community when other, more personally close advisers were counseling a UN-free approach - is now squarely behind the tough line.

Gone are the days when pundits and analysts picked at every suggestion of dissonance between "Powell the dove" and "the hawks" - Donald Rumsfeld & Co. Wednesday, it is Powell who warns that the diplomatic window is fast closing - and precisely because it is Powell saying it, people listen.

"People may disagree with him, but they never question his integrity or dead honesty," says George Shultz, secretary of state under President Reagan. "If he says something, they know he believes it - and means it."

The importance Powell gives to working within the UN process and building a coalition for US-led interventions can be gleaned from his past experience.

"You want to have as many friends as you can have," says Gen. Alfred Gray, a former Marine Corps commandant who was a member of the Joint Chiefs during the Gulf War. Recalling the February 1991 meeting where the Joint Chiefs recommended ending hostilities, General Gray says, "There was unanimity among us that it was time to stop. There was no [UN] resolution to go on to destroy Iraq."

Mr. Shultz says that when policy was still being formed for the current situation, it was only normal that the "able and dedicated" members of Bush's national security team would express their varying opinions.

"There's a tradition of the secretary of state not being too political, that you're serving the nation's foreign policy and striving to be bipartisan or not exceedingly partisan," Shultz says.

But he says that, more than two months after Iraq accepted the inspectors' return under a tough UN resolution, it appears Iraq is not changing its ways - so the die is cast. "Now, everybody [in the administration] sees it's coming to a head, so they rally."

The fact that Bush went with Powell's advice last fall to take the Iraq issue to the UN says as much about Bush's instincts as his secretary of state's, some observers say. But others note that as a military man, Powell is naturally conservative about resorting to arms - but also knows who is his commander. "The president probably said, 'OK, Colin, we've tried [the UN route], and now we've got to head down a little more direct path,' " says Col. John Warden, the Air Force strategist who designed the Gulf War air campaign.

Still, State Department officials show some sensitivity to the idea that their boss has shifted his approach to the Iraq conflict. After the Washington Post ran a front-page story trumpeting Powell's rhetorical shift, spokesman Richard Boucher snapped, "Don't read the Post on Powell, read Powell in the Post" - a reference to an opinion piece Powell published there last October in which he said, "We do not seek a war with Iraq, but we will not shrink from war if that is the only way to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction."

That, broadly, continues to be Bush's policy today. But the fact that Powell is now the chief promoter of that view gives it more weight abroad - and at home.

A new Gallup poll released on the eve of Powell's speech shows that Americans by a wide margin - 63 percent versus 24 percent - choose Powell over Bush as the leader they trust more when it comes to US policy on Iraq.

Secretary Shultz says that, while a secretary of state is not "conjecturing" in moments like these about making history, the momentousness of pivotal occasions does sink in. He remembers, for example, attending a Security Council meeting in 1987. The vote was on Resolution 598, calling for a cease-fire and peace plan in the Iran-Iraq war.

"I raised my hand along with the Russian, the Chinese [representatives]," in what would turn out to be a historic unanimous vote of the Council. "It was a big moment, really symbolizing in one way the end of the cold war."

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