- The Washington Times - Friday, September 6, 2002

If he were any other Cabinet member, he'd be sent packing, but the rules don't seem to apply to Colin L. Powell. The popular secretary of state said last week that the "first step" in dealing with Iraq was to send in U.N. inspectors to search for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

"Let's see what the inspectors find," Mr. Powell urged in an interview with the BBC. It was a clear challenge to others in the administration who favor a pre-emptive military strike against Iraq. But more importantly, it was an effort to take public an internal administration dispute, giving ammunition to critics who say President Bush's Iraq policy is in disarray.

Only days before Mr. Powell called for a return of U.N. inspectors, Vice President Richard B. Cheney gave the strongest and most well-reasoned argument yet in favor of a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, without waiting for more international inspections or sanctions.

"The risks of inaction are worse than the risks of action," Mr. Cheney declared, warning that U.N. inspectors might "provide false comfort" and that Saddam Hussein could have nuclear weapons "fairly soon."

Unlike Mr. Powell's, Mr. Cheney's remarks came in a scripted speech that had been thoroughly vetted within the White House. If anything, the vice president's speech was a signal to dissident voices in the administration that the debate was no longer whether the United States would hit Iraq, but how quickly troops and equipment could be in place to carry out the attack.

But Mr. Powell seems not to have gotten the message and appears to believe that he might still win the debate before the court of public opinion.

It's not the first time Mr. Powell has taken his policy disputes public. Earlier this year, Mr. Powell was the lone administration voice arguing that the United States needed Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat as a partner in the Middle East peace process after others had concluded Mr. Arafat was more trouble than he was worth. Mr. Powell was also the chief proponent of a hard line against the Israelis when they moved into the West Bank following a series of deadly Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians.

"The consequences of Israel's military action are affecting Israel, the United States, and the interests of peace and the interests of the political process," warned Mr. Powell, adding that U.S. relationships with some Arab nations could be "damaged, perhaps irrevocably" if Israel did not withdraw.

This Bush White House is famous for insisting on loyalty and solidarity within the ranks. So how does Mr. Powell get away with giving vent to his policy disputes in public? It stems from the president's early relationship to the popular and well-respected Mr. Powell. In most presidential campaigns, it's the aspiring appointees who try to curry favor with the nominee. Not so with Mr. Bush and Mr. Powell. It was Mr. Bush who courted Mr. Powell from day one, and Mr. Powell seemed to be the one holding all the cards.

When Mr. Bush named Mr. Powell secretary of state his first act as the president-elect after the contentious Florida election debacle he called Mr. Powell "an American hero." At the time, Mr. Powell's acceptance of the job was interpreted by many, especially in the media, as giving legitimacy and stature to a president who, they claimed, lacked both.

Much has changed in the intervening two years. Mr. Bush now has the overwhelming support of the American public, especially in his conduct of foreign policy. He's won public approval by showing consistency and determination to defend the United States from its enemies. It's Mr. Bush, not Mr. Powell, who holds the cards now.

With or without Colin Powell, President Bush is commander in chief, and he deserves the loyalty of all his lieutenants. Mr. Powell owes the president his best advice, even if it differs from others in the administration, including the vice president. But that advice should be given in private.

If Mr. Powell feels it necessary to go public with his disagreements, maybe he should join the ranks of fellow dissidents James Baker and Lawrence Eagleburger as a former secretary of state.

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