Jewish World Review Oct. 19, 2004 /4 Mar-Cheshvan 5765
Powell's ups, downs and new battlefields
"No." That was Colin Powell's answer when I asked whether he has ever, so far during his term as secretary of state, seriously considered handing in his resignation. "I don't quit."
"You don't quit?" I repeated. I wanted to make sure I heard him correctly. After weeks of waiting, I finally had a half-hour with Powell, the largest of the Bush administration's larger-than-life icons. I wanted to catch every word.
He was sitting, quite at ease in his dark blue "Boys and Girls Clubs of Scottsdale, Ariz." aviator jacket (His favorite casual attire, I'm told), beside a coffee table in the most formidably elegant Washington office suite that I have ever seen outside of the White House the better to humble foreign visitors, I suppose.
Critics of the Iraq war, in particular, have wondered why Powell did not resign in protest or as a simple matter of principle over continuing frustrations with the administration's foreign policy hawks, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
"Nah," he grumbled, frowning at the notion of surrender as Gen. George Patton might. "I don't quit."
"There have been up days and down days in every job I've ever had," he said, relaxing back into his diplomatic voice. "But ... we're doing some very important things in the world."
That was his cue to offer a litany of the administration's foreign policy achievements: He's "very pleased" with the multibillion dollar Millennium Challenge Account for global development and other increases in development assistance funding. "We helped India and Pakistan stop themselves from going to war ... gotten rid of weapons of mass destruction in Libya ... concluded a number of free trade agreements. ... We helped in getting rid of [former president] Charles Taylor in Liberia with just the right application of force."
He's excited, Powell said, about the new Middle Eastern initiative that gained traction when foreign ministers agreed recently in New York City to hold the first "Forum for the Future" among Mideast and G-8 governments to discuss political and economic liberalization in December.
With an eye toward Iraq's planned elections in January, Powell sounded understandably delighted about Afghanistan's recent elections, despite scattered human-rights reports of ballot-box stuffing and voter intimidation. "We've liberated Afghanistan and I can tell you it was a very pleasant Sunday morning to sit at home and see, not bombs going off, but people lined up [to vote]. A number of people wrote how it couldn't happen ... but there you are!"
What about Osama bin Laden? Last week Sen. John Kerry caught President Bush off guard during their final presidential debate, asserting that Bush once said he was "not concerned" about hunting down the Al Qaeda leader. Bush protested, "I don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. That's kind of one of those exaggerations." But, as later news reports showed, Bush had said of bin Laden during a news conference on March 13, 2002, that "I truly am not that concerned about him." Where does bin Laden rank among Powell's concerns?
"We want him," he said, declining to comment on the debate. "I'm not going to get into who got the best of that [exchange]. I don't know the context of what [the president] said last year. He's never given up his search for bin Laden ... He's still out there ... somewhere in Pakistan. ... we work close with Pakistan ... and the president gets briefed on it on a regular basis and he asks about it on a regular basis. He's not taking his eye off the ball."
Powell disagreed with Kerry's description of the Iraq war as a "diversion" from the global war on terror, saying there were no plans to put more troops in Afghanistan and the Pakistanis are doing more to hunt bin Laden in their tribal areas "than we ever have before."
Among other trouble spots, he had just gotten off the phone "literally an hour ago" with leaders of doubly troubled Sudan and the Africa Union, whose troops Powell is trying to "accelerate" to help a shaky cease-fire in Sudan's Darfur region: "It just takes some time, Clarence. It's not like in the old days when I could just pick up the phone and call the 82nd Airborne and 30 minutes later they were at Pope Air Force Base wondering where I wanted to go."
Would Powell stay on for a second Bush term? Reports as early as an August 2002 Time magazine story have said he's as good as gone because of frustrations with the Cheney-Rumsfeld hawks. "I serve at the pleasure [of the president]," he said.
That has been his standard answer to that question. I also reminded him that "it also sounds like a non-answer answer."
"That's fine," he said with a smile. "Call it whatever you want. I'm consistent."
That he is. He also sounds consistent in his efforts to steer the administration toward diplomacy and away from war, but not very content.
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