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Powell's Credibility Rides on U.N. Vote

March 09, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Saddam Hussein's fate isn't the only one that hangs in the balance at the United Nations this week. So may the legacy of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

Having persuaded President Bush to work through the United Nations to confront Baghdad, Powell must now try to deliver Security Council approval for Bush's plan to forcibly disarm Iraq and oust its president. His credibility rides on a favorable vote, as does his standing as a counterweight to the administration's hard-liners.

Powell has fought many battles in his distinguished career, from Vietnam as a young captain to the Persian Gulf War as a four-star general. But this time he's battling on three fronts -- against a slippery Hussein, against recalcitrant allies and, most painfully for Powell, against the antagonistic hawks within the administration.

Powell plans to work the phones today, U.S. officials said, in a last-ditch campaign to squeeze out the nine-vote minimum and stave off vetoes for passage of an American-backed resolution. For weeks, he has confidently predicted to aides that he could pull it off.

In his autobiography, "My American Journey," Powell outlines 13 rules that he says have guided his life. The last of them: "Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier."

But he may need more than his boyish optimism, trademark charisma or even stature as the world's most powerful diplomat to ensure that the cliffhanger at the United Nations does not go down in defeat -- a real possibility after the acrimonious session at the Security Council on Friday.

France, Russia and China have at least implicitly threatened to use their vetoes. French President Jacques Chirac kept up the pressure this weekend by lobbying for an emergency summit of heads of state from council member countries to find a compromise to war.

Only Bulgaria and Cameroon have formally joined the three resolution co-sponsors -- the United States, Britain and Spain. But Chile, a key swing vote, said Saturday that a suggested March 17 deadline for Hussein to disarm or face war was too short. And all the others have refused to publicly declare.

Powell's first rule: "It ain't as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning."

Even before the vote, however, Powell is coming under some of the most blistering criticism of his four decades in government service -- from Republicans and Democrats, hawks and doves, most of them otherwise still his admirers -- about how he has orchestrated U.S. diplomatic strategy on Iraq.

"Powell doesn't do as well on strategy as on management. I think Powell has lost this round," said a ranking Republican official who served during Operation Desert Storm in the first Bush administration and asked not to be identified.

After the weapons inspectors' Jan. 27 report on Iraq's progress failed to persuade the Security Council to act, the former official said, Bush decided that the U.N. route would involve an endless argument about continuing inspections.

"The president said, 'Forget it.' And Powell said, 'Yes, sir,' " the official added.

The hawks also outflanked Powell, deploying so many troops -- in the name of putting pressure on Baghdad -- that any prospect of prolonging diplomacy or inspections quickly became a moot point, observers say.

"Powell got a little outmaneuvered here. By the time we had 160,000 troops in the field, the option of keeping them there through August began to look pretty unrealistic," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Powell's fourth rule: "It can be done!"

But even some of Powell's staff have wondered about his tactics, noting that he has barely traveled to sell America's case since Bush called on the United Nations to end the 12-year disarmament saga in Iraq.

In contrast, during several months of high-profile diplomacy to persuade Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait in 1990 and 1991, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III spent weeks on the road visiting 41 countries on five continents. The first Bush administration forged unusual unanimity and a huge coalition to confront Hussein.

"Powell seems a little bit absent in comparison," a State Department official said. "He feels he can be effective using telephone diplomacy, but a lot of these governments want the benefits of his physical presence. A line or two in the local media about a telephone call doesn't compare with the high visibility of TV pictures showing him visiting."

In a hint of the dilemma he faces, other U.S. officials and foreign policy analysts say Powell didn't dare leave town for fear of what administration hawks might sell the White House in his absence. Neoconservatives in the administration often talk about "us versus them," referring not to their conflict with Iraq nor with balking allies. The "them" is Powell's State Department. In his place, Powell has opted to dispatch lower-ranking staff, who often keep exhausting travel schedules.

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