Jewish World Review Feb. 14, 2003 / 12 Adar I 5763
Bush's clean-up man
A revealing moment came on the day after Colin Powell's impressive (whether you agreed with all of it or not) United Nations presentation on the dangers posed by Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
In a Senate hearing, ranking Democrat Joseph Biden of Delaware began his questioning of Powell by taking a moment to nominate the secretary of state "for President of the United States."
The room erupted in the cautious humming, murmuring chortles that are appropriate to the decorum of Capitol Hill hearing rooms. A great steam pressure had been let out. Biden had said aloud what countless minds were thinking.
As Jay Leno remarked on his late-night show, watching Powell's speech made you wonder, "Why isn't he President?"
Indeed, an abundant number of powerful people in both parties have tried to persuade Powell to run for president. I wish he would do it, if only to prove one way or another whether the country is ready to hand the big job to a black man.
But, it does not appear likely to happen. His wife, Alma Powell, revealed her fears for her husband's life in a 1996 Ladies' Home Journal interview and her fears are widely believed to be his principal reason for avoiding a presidential run. Instead, we have the consolation prize of watching him help guide the nation's foreign policy, if not as captain, then as first mate.
"In every society, some men are born to rule, and some to advise," Ralph Waldo Emerson once said.
If that's true, I am relieved that Powell has President Bush's ear. As our great ship of state sails through choppy seas in these uncertain times, it's a relief to see Powell's steady hand near the wheel, if not directly upon it.
We need such reassurances now because, with President Bush getting the military machinery in place to invade Iraq, it is not the ousting of Saddam Hussein that I'm worried about as much as the unanswered questions of what comes afterward.
Toppling Saddam leaves big questions about who and what replaces him, questions that administration has been reluctant to answer with much detail. If President Bush has abandoned his opposition as a candidate to "nation building," fine. Unfortunately, his silence on the matter gives the unsettling impression that he has not really thought about it much.
The same goes for his silence on the larger questions of defeating Al Qaeda terrorism (just because Bush has stopped mentioning Osama bin Laden doesn't mean he or his threat have gone away), healing wounded relations with our allies and shaping new relationships with Iran and North Korea -- and, for that matter, South Korea.
Bush is a man of simple virtues and few words. That can be charming in a national leader but unsettling in a complicated world. In our post-9-11 era, a leader should show some self-reflection, not just plenty of platitudes.
Remember Bush's "crusade" against "the evildoers," especially the "Axis of Evil" and Osama bin Laden, whom he wanted "dead or alive," or his pledge to disarm Iraq even if we have to "go it alone"?
Such hairy-chested talk may go over big on talk radio but it sounds a bit frantic to the rest of the world, including our traditional allies.
After waves of such grandstanding, Powell enters like the administration's clean-up man, whether to reestablish talks with North Korea or to smooth ruffled feathers in NATO.
Fortunately, we have not been hearing Bush talk like a cross between a lonely cowboy and a caped crusader lately. Instead, he's talking about working with the United Nations or "a coalition of the willing." The shift toward diplomacy bears the fingerprints of Powell, the leading dove against the arguments of Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney and other administration hawks.
So far, the administration is in a better position because of Powell's approach. If war does happen, it is more likely with Powell's approach to happen with the cooperation of a community of nations, not on the impulse of one big, restless nation. That sort of cooperation will make it easier to pick up the pieces afterward and, one hopes, avoid future wars.
I used to wonder why Powell, after passing up a possible run for president, asked to be secretary of state instead of secretary of defense. I have since realized how much, by his own account, his Vietnam experience taught him the importance of the people back here in Washington who send our young men and women off to war.
Indeed, the most important battles often are those that are fought to avoid war.
With that in mind, I commend the President for listening to Powell's advice. It is comforting to know that we have the sort of president that our secretary of state can be proud of.
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