WASHINGTON — Colin L. Powell is back.
A mere month ago, a Time magazine cover story pondered why the secretary of State had seemed "absent" from the big issues of the day and called him the "odd man out" in crafting foreign policy. Even Powell conceded that he'd had to rein himself in when he got out ahead of the White House on key foreign policy issues, notably North Korea.
But since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, Powell has emerged as the second most important U.S. official--after President Bush--in the unfolding drama, according to a wide array of administration officials. His strategy of a "focused" campaign against Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network has prevailed, at least so far, over other officials who have advocated more aggressive and sweeping operations.
And his intensive diplomacy in assembling an international coalition--convincing countries to accept, facilitate or aid U.S. military operations and nudging them to look in their own backyards for Al Qaeda agents or assets--is now the centerpiece of that strategy.
Just as important, however, are his experience and calming presence, according to politicians, analysts and foreign envoys.
Democrats openly laud him. "I sleep better knowing that he's there," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the terrorism subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Democrats feel that of all the people on the national security team, he's the one we trust the most. If anyone can build the type of coalition we need right now, it's Colin Powell."
And European allies express relief that Powell is proving a major presence in planning the new U.S. war on terrorism.
"We feel he's the crossroads of the two issues to wage this conflict," said a prominent European diplomat who asked not to be identified. "He has the military expertise and he understands the importance of acting alongside allies, not alone. So the total consensus today between the United States and the European Union on what to do next is due in large part to Colin Powell.
"He's a reassuring figure, which is as important to America's international partners as it is to a domestic audience," the diplomat added.
Mideast and military analysts say the critical value of the retired four-star general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is not that he knows how to wage war, but that he understands its limits.
"Powell's status has gone through the roof in Europe and the Mideast because he's seen as someone who understands better than anyone the constraints on the use of military force, having been in Operation Desert Storm," said Geoffrey Kemp, a Mideast specialist and Reagan administration National Security Council staffer. "He understands that it will be a long, twilight war with strange bedfellows, that we'll have to work with coalitions and that there is no quick fix with a battle group carrier."
Part of Powell's newfound prominence is merely his visibility. In contrast to the Bush administration's first eight months, Powell has appeared publicly every day for the past two weeks--at the president's side, at almost daily press conferences, alongside visiting foreign leaders or on television talk shows.
Top aides say Powell was never actually absent from the scene, and that a report in the Village Voice speculating he might resign out of frustration wasn't true.
Powell was not more visible before this crisis because he long has been in the limelight and now shuns the trappings of power, such as Camp David weekends, State Department insiders say.
And yet Powell lately has been the key member of the foreign policy team in publicly defining the U.S. response. He was the first to identify Bin Laden as the prime suspect in the terrorist attacks. And on Sunday, he was first to answer the looming question about the extent of the U.S. goals in Afghanistan: Whether Washington wants to topple the ruling Taliban regime and try to do what the British and Russians have attempted repeatedly in the past, with resounding failure.
Powell said no. "We have to keep our focus on the Al Qaeda network," he said on "This Week."
While cautioning that future U.S. actions would depend on how Kabul behaves, he said that the Taliban regime "is not uppermost in our minds right now--I'm not going to say that it has become one of the objectives of the United States government to either remove or put in place a different regime."
That position again will reassure other nations about how deeply Washington might drag the coalition into volatile South Asia.
"From Powell, we're finally beginning to see clarity in terms of what the United States is seeking in this first phase, which will provide real reassurance to our allies," said James Steinberg, deputy national security advisor during the Clinton administration and now director of the Brookings Institution's foreign studies program.
But aides say the full scope of Powell's impact is little known. "We've begun to see action taken by members of the coalition in response to our requests--financial controls imposed, accounts seized, people arrested, organizations closed down," said the senior State Department official. "But this visible part is only the tip of the iceberg."