- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 21, 2002

The tale is the same. In two different capacities, Colin Powell has persevered in helping position the United States to prevail in times of major crisis. The first time was 1990 when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The second is today as secretary of state. As everyone knows, the crises were over Iraq and its leader Saddam Hussein.
After Iraq seized oil-rich Kuwait in August 1990, President George H.W. Bush defined the strategic choice as whether to "defend" Saudi Arabia against an Iraqi invasion and rely on peaceful sanctions and diplomacy to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty or take the offensive and "eject" Iraq by war. The senior civilians favoring war thought it could be won with a force of as few as 250,000.
Operation Desert Shield began deploying forces into the Gulf for the defensive mission. Throughout the early fall, no final decision had been made and the press characterized Gen. Powell as a "reluctant warrior" preferring political pressure to war. But, Gen. Powell had a different view and intent.
On the afternoon of Oct. 30, 1990, the elder Mr. Bush met in the White House with his national security team. The day had not started well. Congress had just adjourned for the midterm elections. That morning, a congressional delegation led by Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and House Speaker Tom Foley confronted Mr. Bush over Iraq. The president was handed a letter signed by 81 members of Congress.
Gravely concerned that "war may be imminent," the letter warned the president that "The consequences [of war] would be catastrophic resulting in the massive loss of lives including 10,000-50,000 Americans. This can only be described as war. Under the U.S. Constitution," Mr. Bush was gratuitously reminded, "only the Congress can declare war." Mr. Bush later wrote he expected Congress to bring impeachment proceedings against him if he stumbled.
Mr. Bush opened the crucial afternoon meeting with the key questions. Does the U.S. limit its actions to defend Saudi Arabia and rely on sanctions? Or does it drive Saddam out of Kuwait with force? When the discussion turned to the offensive option, Gen. Powell was asked what size force would be needed. His calculated reply was about 500,000 troops, nearly double the figure required to defend. As a number of participants later noted, Gen. Powell's answer provoked audible gasps of alarm.
But the fact is that by recommending such a large force, Gen. Powell guaranteed that if it were war, the United States would win overwhelmingly and with fewest casualties. Gen. Powell, of course, was proven correct. The military victory was one of the most one-sided in history.
When he became secretary of state 10 years later, he found himself at odds within the fledgling administration. Major policy differences surfaced so much so that the media declared Mr. Powell isolated by the "hard-liners" who had the president's ear. Mr. Powell, the former general, was the reluctant warrior in an administration filled with civilian hawks. After September 11 and President Bush's call for a regime change in Baghdad and the prospect for war, Mr. Powell's influence was regarded as waning further.
Mr. Powell could pointedly joke that from the conservative side The Washington Times was calling for his dismissal for not following the tough Bush line toward Iraq while the "other" Times in New York was asking him to resign on principle to protest the White House's excessive "unilateralism." Mr. Bush, supporting his chief diplomat, thought that divide was a good balance.
Any question of Mr. Powell's standing, however, changed after the U.N. Security Council's recent unanimous vote to compel Iraqi compliance with prior resolutions forbidding it weapons of mass destruction. That vote was rightly seen as a victory for the Bush administration, the United Nations, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and, especially, Mr. Powell who prevailed in convincing the president that winning international support was vital in winning the ultimate battle against Saddam whether or not force was used in anger.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the U.N. vote was only the first step in what will be a long, difficult and possibly bloody process if Iraq refuses the Security Council's will. Mr. Powell's next challenge is to move the administration and the international community to define the nature of a post-Saddam world should war against Iraq follow or, worse, if little or flimsy evidence of weapons of mass destruction is uncovered by U.N. inspections.
When it comes to designing broad conceptual frameworks, Mr. Powell readily acknowledges he is not a Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, George Shultz or James Baker. But the two portraits on the wall of his private office of predecessor secretaries of state are instructive. They are of Thomas Jefferson and George Marshall. As the nation moves from "the end of the beginning" to the next of possibly many phases in dealing with Iraq, there will be subsequent tales. Let us hope they are as good as the first two.

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times. His latest book is "Unfinished Business: Defusing the Dangers that Threaten America's Security." The October meeting discussed above is treated in greater detail in his book.


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