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Retiring Gen. Powell's List of Presidents May Hold Clue : Politics: Widely admired head of Joint Chiefs is feted and honored. Will he run one day for the White House?

September 29, 1993|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Perhaps the most telling line in Colin L. Powell's valedictory address Tuesday as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was his reference to three former presidents he admires--George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

All were Army generals, like himself, before becoming President, a prize that many believe Powell also could claim one day.

After a half-dozen years near the pinnacles of power, first as White House national security adviser and then as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell retires at midnight Thursday, ending 35 years of military service. He will leave as a Vietnam War hero who was later hailed again as a champion in the Persian Gulf War.

Over the last couple of weeks, he has been feted and honored. He has received plaques and medals and--as he joked--"cheap mugs." A "final, final" retirement ceremony is planned for Thursday at nearby Ft. Myer, Va. Then he sheds his green Army uniform for the suit and tie of civilian life.

But as he prepares to ride off on the high-paying book-and-lecture circuit, Powell is saying that he will return to public service. He is so well known and so widely admired--and, as the first black general to rise to chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs, his credentials are so spectacular--that he cannot escape the ultimate political question:

Will he run for the White House?

Like a politician, Powell gave a long and unwieldy answer as he addressed the National Press Club, making one of his farewell addresses. After mentioning the other generals who became President, he said:

"After I retire . . . and have had a chance to collect my wits and thoughts, as I have said on more than one occasion, I hope to do something that is in service to the nation in some capacity.

"Whether that is political or not remains to be seen."

He chose Tuesday's speech to reflect on his years as a military leader through the end of the Cold War and up to the problems that face the United States today as it becomes embroiled in regional hot spots around the globe.

Conceding that the U.S. mission in Somalia has become muddied, he quickly added: "But because things get difficult, you don't cut and run. You work the problem and try to find a correct solution."

He said that the United States will "need a political process that will continue the marginalization" of Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid--a suggestion that isolating rather than arresting the Somali warlord may be the practical way to end the fighting there.

He noted that much of the original mission in Somalia--to end starvation--has been accomplished. He said that he hopes peace will come with the creation of a "functioning" political system and police force in Somalia.

However, he said, Bosnia presents a "far, far more difficult challenge."

The general embraced a call that is gaining momentum on Capitol Hill for a clear-cut exit plan before U.S. troops are committed to the Balkan region.

He said that it would be appropriate for troops of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and United Nations to turn the region over to the local authorities only "when the boundaries have been settled and when the relocation of people has taken place and when there is a reasonable level of stability so that internal police forces can manage the peace."

With the demise of the Soviet bloc, he singled out China and North Korea as possible troublemakers in the post-Cold War world.

"I hope that as China comes out of its period of transition, it will come out in a peaceful way willing to work with its neighbors," he said.

He called North Korea "perhaps the greatest enigma," a well-armed state experiencing deep economic troubles. "It seems to be spending the remaining part of its treasury to develop nuclear weapons, hoping that those weapons will give them some political or military power that they do not now enjoy," he said.

He also observed that "the evil" President Saddam Hussein remains in power in Iraq, although he said that he finds no problem with the U.S. decision not to hunt him down in the aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He said that, while Hussein is "still very annoying," the Iraqi regime has been "neutralized and made irrelevant."

He described his two primary goals as the country's top soldier: making sure that every Pentagon operation was successful and reshaping the military as it has begun to shrink. "I feel pretty good about both of these goals," he said.

At the same time, he added, he has worked hard to make sure the Pentagon will be prepared the next time it is needed to fight a war.

"A crisis that nobody today can predict," he said, "most assuredly will arrive at 2 o'clock one morning sometime in the future. My prayer is there'll be a force ready to deal with that crisis when it comes."

As the U.S. military puts women in the cockpits of jet fighters and copes with the issue of the role of homosexuals in the armed services, Powell urged that the military remain focused on its main objectives.

"We have to remember also that we're warriors," he said. "We're not a church picnic group. We're warriors."

It is the army of Washington and Grant and Eisenhower that, Powell suggested, he will miss most of all--regardless of what lies ahead for him.

"I've been a soldier all my life," he said. "I've never wanted to be anything else."

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