- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 4, 2002

For Secretary of State Colin Powell, trying to reconcile the irreconcilable has been the story of his life: The son of a Jamaican immigrant advancing to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a black man in the upper reaches of the Republican Party, a military man in civilian politics. And now, in the riskiest chapter of his fabled career a diplomat (?) amid a band of warrior princes in a nation besieged.

Suddenly, last weekend, the quiet man of the Bush inner-circle dominated the news of the world. From London to Cairo to across the American media, the words, the implications, the hints of Colin Powell played out in seeming rebuttal to the vice president's seemingly decisive speeches of last week.

But typically for Mr. Powell, he advanced by indirection. A 1,000 word front-page New York Times story reported on Mr. Powell's "silence" in the Iraqi debate (with all of Mr. Powell's salient points neatly itemized). Abridged transcripts from a BBC interview were released, wherein Mr. Powell calls for Iraqi inspections. A Time Magazine "scoop" from an unnamed Powell intimate reveals that Mr. Powell would resign after the first Bush term. And, a front page above-the-fold Washington Post Sunday Outlook article interprets the real Mr. Powell wherein most of his critics and supporters are gently criticized for their misinterpretations of him.

Newspapers around the world characterized Mr. Powell's position as "contradicting Cheney" or "backing the British line over Saddam" or "distancing himself from America's hawks." But when dealing with Mr. Powell, one needs to read carefully, because Mr. Powell is a careful man. And so is Mr. Cheney. Where Mr. Powell said: "As a first step, let's see what the inspectors find," Mr. Cheney said that "a return of inspectors would provide no assurance" and there is a "great danger" that resuming inspections would "provide false comfort."

These statements are almost, but not quite, contradictory. Mr. Powell has not precluded pre-emptive war and Mr. Cheney has not categorically opposed inspections. It is only when Mr. Cheney's and Mr. Powell's views are described on unattributed background by sources close to each of the men that clear opposition is reached.

We are privileged to be observing the highest possible policy combat by the two most pre-eminent extant practioners of the inside Washington game. To handicap this contest, it is useful to take a look at the men. Both of them are invariably calm in public and possess a tone of utter reasonableness and high intelligence. In English terminology, they are unflappable. But this similarity is deceiving. Behind Mr. Cheney's calm is a deep and assertive activist, who has always moved boldly on behalf of his substantive vision. The cool exterior belies the passions within.

Mr. Powell, for all his fine military record, has always seemed to be a man who values calmness for its own sake. One has the sense that if Mr Powell, in fact, opposes pre-emptive war, he does so not because he thinks it's wrong, but because it is unpleasantly messy and unpredictable. He prefers things clean and predictable. (For example, his military doctrine requires overwhelming force and a clear exit strategy.) While he is an active proceduralist, he has always seemed to be a passive policy-innovator.

He doesn't so much create or confront events, as he manages and exploits events as he finds them. This is a valuable trait and instinct, particularly in defense of the status quo. His recent private intervention when Morocco invaded the Spanish Parsley Islet was a small masterpiece of calming troubled waters. He would have been a superb 19th-century British foreign minister, calming the excitable London politicians and newspapers while not over-responding to every contretemps in Britain's enviable empire.

But in periods of upheaval, the refusal to act gives aid if unintentionally to those bent on destruction. And his instinct for the conventional, orderly unfolding of well-established policy may soon come to look like obstruction, even insolence albeit an insolence operated by omission rather than commission.

It was said of Thomas More when he refused to approve of Henry VIII's marriage to his second wife, Anne Boleyn, that his silence was deafening across the face of England. He was decapitated for his lawyerly prudence and sense of procedural integrity. Thomas More had the misfortune to be a good and beloved man in a bad and hateful age. He failed as lord chancellor because following his conscience, his God and the law could not solve his king's high policy problems.

Mr. Powell seems to be taking on the glow of the sainted Thomas More. It remains to be seen how, or whether, Mr. Powell reconciles his private glories with his public duties. While history may judge men with compassion, it invariably judges their role in great events with dispassion.

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