FOUR-STAR POWER : Colin Powell’s Career Has Proceeded With the Certainty of a Laser-Guided Missile. How Much Higher Will He Go?

<i> Rudy Abramson, who formerly covered the Defense Department, and John Broder, a current Pentagon correspondent, are Times staff writers in the Washington bureau</i>

MIDMORNING IN THE MIDDLE EAST. ACRID SMOKE RISES from hundreds of fires around Baghdad. Flames lick the turrets of mangled Iraqi tanks in Kuwait. From runways in Saudi Arabia and catapults on aircraft carrier decks in the Persian Gulf, one screaming warplane follows another into a new day, bound for Iraq, bound for the bunkers of Saddam Hussein’s dug-in troops. The demolition of an army is under way. The desert has become a slaughterhouse.

In Washington, it is midnight, and just down the broad outer ring of the Pentagon from the war room, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in his huge, dimly lighted office, slips out of his green dress uniform. On a leather sofa, Gen. Colin L. Powell pulls a blanket over himself and falls asleep beneath a painting of West Point’s first black graduate leading a cavalry patrol across the Great Plains.

It has been 20 hours since Powell last slept, but he will be up again before dawn and back in the command center for another day as ringmaster of the mightiest military offensive since the Allies stormed the shores of Normandy. Nearly a week of war will pass before he spends a night at home in his elegant quarters three miles away at Fort Myer, Va., overlooking the capital. By then, the destruction of the Iraqi army by night and day air strikes will have become chillingly systematic, what one Pentagon planner calls “almost an industrial operation.”

After a week of this relentless pounding, Powell appears in the Pentagon briefing room to lay out what is in store for the Iraqi legion that overran Kuwait.


“Our strategy for going after this army is very, very simple,” the general says to the American people. “First we are going to cut it off, and then we are going to kill it.”

It was not a threat. It was a promise.

That bluntness seared Colin Powell into the national consciousness. It was a defining moment for the country’s premier soldier, who is emerging as perhaps the most influential American military leader in half a century. With the armed forces basking in public admiration unseen since Johnny came marching home at the end of World War II, Powell has become a folk hero--a living, breathing recruiting poster with a beer-barrel chest, a blacksmith’s arms and the bearing of a centurion. Suddenly, he is being immortalized on posters and bubble-gum cards, hounded by autograph seekers and, more significantly, promoted as a potential candidate for national office.

While the Gulf War made Powell a symbol of a reinvigorated military, the general remains an enigmatic figure, more compelling yet more distant than most of his predecessors. He is neither a combat hero nor an intellectual. He lacks the glittery command credentials of previous chairmen, World War II generals such as Maxwell Taylor and Omar Bradley; his academic background pales beside the Princeton Ph.D. of his predecessor, Adm. William J. Crowe Jr. Powell’s name now surfaces in political forecasts, but his views on domestic policy have remained an intriguing mystery. Yet he has built a reputation for plain-spokenness as much as for his recruiting-poster image and formidable coolness under pressure, traits displayed in the White House as well as in the Pentagon.

The most remarkable feature about Colin Powell has been his long, sure and steady ascent. From the streets of the South Bronx to the war room of the Pentagon, his career has proceeded with the certainty of a laser-guided missile. Some analysts think the ultimate accolade--a fifth star--might follow, putting him in the rarefied company of such leaders as Bradley, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur. As the conquering troops return home, two big questions hover about him: Can he manage the brewing postwar political battles as surely as he did the six-week war? And, what lies beyond the Army?

The gun barrels of American tanks are scarcely cool, but casual speculation escalates, creating shimmering images of another Eisenhower. One national poll put Powell’s approval rating at an astronomical 86%. Another reported that he was favored by 50% to 23% over Vice President Dan Quayle as President Bush’s running mate next year. The surge of 1992 vice presidential speculation gave rise to noticeable Angst on both sides of the Potomac; in a phone call to Quayle and in public statements, Powell denied having any designs on the vice president’s job. But interest in the general’s political career has hardly abated.

Like Eisenhower, who was courted by Democrats as much as Republicans before he entered the 1952 GOP primary in New Hampshire, Powell hides his political affiliation behind his medals. Asked about it directly in an interview, he says: “I don’t have to answer that. I haven’t answered it, and I am not going to answer it. . . . I’m a military officer.”

JUST TURNED 54, POWELL WAS THE YOUNGEST OFFICER EVER named chairman of the Joint Chiefs when President Bush jumped him over nearly three dozen more senior officers, including Desert Storm commander H. Norman Schwarzkopf, in 1989. Powell is certain to be named to another two-year term when this one expires in October, and he is eligible for a third.

In Washington, long before he delivered on his curtly bombastic promise to wipe out the Iraqi army, Powell was already being mentioned in the same breath with heroic figures of the American military, including the revered soldier-statesman George C. Marshall, principal architect of U.S. strategy in World War II. Members of Congress, often skeptical of military leaders, have come to treat him with near awe. When President Bush acknowledged the general’s presence before a joint session of Congress last month, members rose in a standing ovation.

“Powell is the greatest military leader this country has produced since World War II,” says U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), son and grandson of admirals, himself a former Navy fighter pilot and a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Before the Gulf War, McCain says, Powell was treated with deference and respect on Capitol Hill. “Now it borders on adulation.”

As Marshall resisted the temptation to rush Americans into World War II combat until he was confident the first engagement would end in triumph, Powell has demonstrated a similar, sober caution at the prospect of sending Americans into combat. According to a senior Pentagon official, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney thought that Powell was slow to recommend military responses to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait because the general doubted that Congress and the Administration would provide him the overwhelming force he considered necessary to do the job.

In the early hours after Kuwait was overrun, the defense secretary wanted a series of military options to present to the President, and he wanted it quickly. But two days passed before Powell delivered the plans. Cheney, says an official close to him, “practically had to turn the building upside down and shake it.”

“The whole outfit is conservative,” the official continues. “The military instinct around here was to say, ‘We can’t do this without a substantial ground force, and the politicians will never give us that, so we won’t do anything.’ ”

Powell insists that there was never a moment of foot-dragging. He was, he says, simply determined that if the United States intervened to restore Kuwaiti independence, it had to move with massive superiority. There would be no more Vietnams. It was an attitude ingrained in a generation of officers who fought in the bitterly divisive conflict, and it became the Bush Administrations’s mantra. “If we go in, we go in to win,” Powell repeatedly told Administration officials and members of Congress, “not to fool around.”

After the course was set to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, Powell was the Administration’s most forceful public advocate. When two former Joint Chiefs chairmen, Crowe and retired Air Force Gen. David C. Jones, sided with congressional Democrats arguing that economic sanctions or limited use of air power might persuade Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, Powell launched a frontal attack.

“Many experts, amateurs and others in this town believe that this can be accomplished by such things as surgical air strikes, or perhaps a sustained air strike. And there are a variety of other nice, tidy, alleged low-cost, incremental, may-work options that are floated around with great regularity all over this town,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in December. “Those strategies may work, but they also may not. . . . These strategies are not decisive; they are not success-oriented. Such strategies are designed to hope to win. They are not designed to win.”

From the moment the first planes reached Saudi Arabia on August 8, Powell was patron of a success-oriented Gulf strategy. “When we launch it, we will launch it violently, we will launch it massively, so there will be no doubt when it’s over who won,” the four-star infantryman told a cheering throng of A-10 “Warthog” pilots at an air base in northern Saudi Arabia just before Christmas. “It’s gonna be fun if you ever get started.”

Like Marshall, who yielded the glory of the allied campaign in Europe to Gen. Eisenhower, Powell let the spotlight shine on his field commander, Gen. “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf. Powell oversaw the broad strokes of policy from his Pentagon office and assured his generals that they would be sent every soldier, plane, ship and tank they wanted.

Schwarzkopf, with a small band of young military planners dubbed the “Jedi Knights,” designed the end-run strategy to carry out Powell’s vow to cut off and kill the Iraqi army. In two critical visits to Schwarzkopf’s headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in December and February, Powell reviewed the war plan, questioned his commander and his staff about it and offered a number of minor suggestions. The majority of his questions, aides recall, centered on one issue: how to reduce U.S. casualties.

During the buildup and the air war, Powell and Schwarzkopf spoke by telephone twice a day, once early in the morning, once in the evening. During the four-day ground campaign, the two generals spoke four or five times a day, with Powell demanding detailed information on locations of U.S. combat units and the level of resistance they were meeting. “It’s not the chairman’s style to micromanage,” says a close aide. “These talks were informative rather than consultative.”

Did Powell ever yearn to change places with Schwarzkopf, to shed his crisp green uniform for the field commander’s desert camouflage and muddy boots?

“It would be nice to be out there,” he said a little wistfully a week after the cease-fire was called. “But truly, the answer is no. Norm is the best guy for that job, and I think I have particular experiences for this job.”

THE JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF conduct their most serious deliberations around a circular mahogany table beside Colin Powell’s desk. No staff. No secretaries. Just Powell, Adm. David E. Jeremiah, his vice chairman, and the four chiefs: Gens. Carl E. Vuono of the Army, Merrill A. McPeak of the Air Force, Alfred M. Gray Jr. of the Marine Corps and Adm. Frank B. Kelso II of the Navy. The fact that they meet beside Powell’s desk and not in the secure confines of their formal conference room, known as “the Tank,” is a testament to Powell’s supreme authority.

Though they grapple with multibillion-dollar issues and decisions that will shape the American military forces of the 21st Century, there are no votes. “We haven’t voted on anything since I’ve been here. We talk about things,” Powell says. “I know what every one of them thinks. When we are all through talking about it, I will say, ‘Guys, what I hear you saying is so and so, and what I think about it is so and so, and this is going to be my position with the secretary. Who wants to sign on and who doesn’t?’ ”

It’s hardly democratic, but over the years, the main criticism of the Joint Chiefs system was that it was too democratic to make the tough calls. It produced standoffs. It produced compromises. It recommended budgets that were nothing but the sum of service wish lists. It produced mixed voices. There were times when the chiefs were arrayed against the chairman, and there were times when they were ignored by the secretary of defense.

The landmark 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act changed that, empowering the chairman to act without consensus of the chiefs. On paper, the Defense Department is ruled by a score of boards and committees, but the meaningful power of the Pentagon indisputably rests with Cheney and Powell. “The fact is that the chairman no longer has to give a sort of lowest-common-denominator advice that the chiefs can agree to,” Cheney says. “Colin has put his stamp on the job.”

Powell’s unquestioned authority is mostly born of the force of his personality and his well-honed personal relationships. It was not inevitable. In times past, chairmen of the Joint Chiefs have been so overshadowed by field commanders that they slipped into history’s mists. During the Vietnam War, Chairman Gen. Earle G. Wheeler was excluded for a full year from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s weekly White House luncheon where war policy was made. President Ronald Reagan, in an interview after leaving the White House, said the name John W. Vessey rang a bell but he couldn’t quite place it. Reagan had appointed Army Gen. Vessey chairman of the Joint Chiefs, a position in which he served for four years.

Within the Joint Chiefs, Powell has quietly built a miniature think tank, headed by Army Lt. Gen. Howard D. Graves, considered to be one of the military’s leading strategic thinkers. This small group of senior officers rivals the Defense Department’s civilian policy planning staff in defining the nation’s defense agenda. But it is Powell who runs the show, a sharp contrast with that of Crowe, his immediate predecessor. Crowe was more of a cajoler, a consensus builder who “would float a proposal and then kibitz with the other chiefs and sometimes would even change his mind,” says one reigning service chief who worked under both chairmen. “Powell tends to make a decision and then go back to the tank and rally the chiefs to his point of view. He lays the agenda on the table and we all nod affirmative, and that’s about it.”

When disputes cannot be resolved, dissenters are invited to take their pointers and their charts up to Cheney’s office, one floor above Powell’s. “I love fights,” Powell insists. “That’s the way to get the best out of people. The worst thing is to fail to let somebody get in his shot, and that’s not the way we do business.”

When Powell and his subordinates are involved, the fights tend to be one-sided, says his spokesman, Col. Frederick W. Smullen II. During the Gulf War, a television news report on a secret new technique for targeting Iraqi tanks sent Powell into a self-described “tantrum.” Smullen was on the receiving end of this sharp and profane exchange, even though Powell knew he wasn’t responsible for the story. The storm quickly passed, however. “His anger is intense but short-lived,” Smullen says. “It lasts seconds, not minutes.”

Powell’s broad power also arises from relationships he has forged over the years with Bush, Cheney and Brent Scowcroft, White House national security adviser. During his tour at the White House as national security aide, Powell occupied an office only a few feet from Vice President Bush. They shared a bathroom in the West Wing. The vice president was on hand each morning when Powell went in to give Reagan his national security briefing. They would drop by each other’s office to chat. Today, Powell affords the President respect but not awe. He uses the same blunt language in the Oval Office as he does in the chiefs’ conference room.

Cheney, a former congressman from Wyoming who came to the Pentagon as a relative neophyte, describes his relationship with Powell as “a continuing tutorial on the U.S. military.”

Some students of the military believe that the fact that Powell is black enhances his extraordinary standing, a declaration of a new day in a profession where few blacks have made it to the top. “It is not talked about much, but there is powerful symbolism in the fact that he is the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs,” says Eliot Cohen of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Powell is only the fourth black in the country’s history to reach four-star rank, following a trail blazed by Air Force Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr., Army Gen. Roscoe Robinson Jr. and Air Force Gen. Bernard P. Randolph.

Some segments of the black community, however, feel a certain ambivalence about him, sparked by persistent doubts about the fairness of the all-volunteer military force. With young blacks, who make up 14% of the population at large, constituting 22% of the enlisted ranks, critics suggest that the country has, in effect, an economic draft. The chairman himself is unequivocal in defense of the Army and the system. “I wish that there were other activities in our society and in our nation that were as open as the military is to upward mobility, to achievement, to allowing them in,” he told the House Armed Services Committee this year. “I wish that corporate America, I wish the trade unions around the nation would show the same level of openness and opportunity to minorities that the military has.

“The fact that we have a higher percentage than the percentage that exists in the general population doesn’t trouble me at all. That’s why I came in, to get a job--$222.30 a month.”

“You’ve done well,” Rep. Beverly B. Byron (D-Md.) observed.

“I ain’t done bad,” he replied.

BUT FOR HIS ENCOURAGING parents and a sudden love affair with the military, Colin Powell’s horizons might never have reached beyond the South Bronx.

The son of Jamaican immigrants, both of whom are deceased, Powell grew up in the neighborhood that is now the symbol of urban blight. But during his childhood, it was a cultural melting pot populated by traditional families who embraced middle-class values and entertained middle-class aspirations. His father was a garment-district salesclerk, his mother a seamstress. Both insisted on their son’s going to college, although he was an indifferent student at Morris High School.

Powell entered the City College of New York in 1954 as a prospective engineering major. But when a professor asked him to visualize a cone intersecting a plane in space, he quickly discovered a distinct lack of aptitude for mathematics and switched to geology.

He found his real niche in ROTC, earning A’s in military science, which kept his overall grade-point average at a passing level. On graduation day in 1958, he proudly pinned on the “butter bars” of a second lieutenant but had no long-range plans for an Army career.

Indeed, he did not give his future serious thought until he met Alma Vivian Johnson on a blind date two years later and began thinking of marriage. They were wed in 1962. Four months later, he was ordered to Vietnam. Alma, then pregnant, moved home to Birmingham, Ala., to live with her parents. When their first child was born, he was in the jungle as an adviser to a South Vietnamese infantry battalion; the news didn’t reach him for three weeks.

The Powells now have three children: Michael, 28, who left the Army to become a civilian employee of the Defense Department after being critically injured in a jeep accident; Linda, 25, an actress in New York, and Annemarie, 20, a student at the College of William and Mary.

Powell relaxes by reading biographies and military histories, tinkering with vintage Volvos and watching old movies. One night, just before the air war began, he went home to relax, but every television station was carrying war news. So he and Alma spent the evening watching a video, “Witness for the Prosecution.” His favorite dish is ground beef prepared any of a hundred ways, and good old peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. He has taken exactly one vacation since becoming chairman--a long weekend more than a year ago visiting friends outside of New York City.

Powell’s military career for “the first bunch of years was routine,” he says. He led an infantry platoon, commanded a rifle company, and along the way completed airborne training and Ranger school. Two tours in Vietnam brought him combat experience, a Soldier’s Medal for valor (he rescued his commanding officer from a burning helicopter) and a Purple Heart for bad luck (he punctured his left foot in a Vietnamese booby trap).

The second tour in Vietnam presented him with his first chance to break out of the pack. In 1969, he graduated second in his class at the Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., which got his picture into the Army Times. The commander of the Americal Division saw it, yanked Powell up to headquarters at Chu Lai and made him operations officer, although he was still a major.

The pivotal moment came three years later when he was just out of George Washington University graduate school, where the Army had sent him for a master’s degree in business administration. Toiling in a Pentagon staff job and hoping for a chance to command an infantry battalion, he instead was ordered to apply for a prestigious White House fellowship--the Army’s chief of personnel wanted an infantry officer to serve at the White House to increase the branch’s prestige.

The fellows program is designed to speed young Americans of exceptional promise on their way to leadership by giving them a year’s experience working with top Administration officials. Competition for the spots is brutal, the selection process excruciating.

Powell, who was 35, turned in his application without enthusiasm. “It really didn’t mean anything to me whether I made it or whether I didn’t until I got into the competition,” he recalls. “But I made it, and I was the oldest fellow in the group.”

“He was serious, but not terribly intense about it,” says fellow finalist James E. Bostic, now president of the Butler Paper Co. in Denver. “But when the resumes were sent around, his choice of assignment was the Office of Management and Budget. He knew that was where the action was.”

At OMB, he caught the eye of director Caspar W. Weinberger and his deputy, Frank C. Carlucci, who both played crucial roles in his rise. “I saw politics for the first time, I saw high policy for the first time, so that was a defining experience,” Powell says.

But more than that, he says, the year around the White House complex taught him that, in Washington, “the whole thing is greased by compromise and consensus” and that there is as much to be learned from the people who fail as from people who succeed. “If you think all the sisters are virtuous and all the brothers are noble,” Powell tells new arrivals, “you are going to be disappointed.”

In the view of his admirers and many Pentagon veterans, no chairman in history ever reached the job better prepared. Powell’s long run of working for key civilians in the Defense Department began when he was named executive assistant to John G. Kester, the civilian aide to Carter’s defense secretary, Harold Brown. Kester had each of the military services provide him the names of top prospects. Powell turned up on the Army list, and Kester asked him to come in for an interview.

“He had a very good, direct personality,” says Kester. “He gave me the sense that he was a very straight dealer. Right away, he said something like, ‘How did you happen to bring me in here?’ And I said, ‘I checked you out, and I heard a lot of good things about you.’ He said, ‘Well, as a matter of fact, I checked you out, too, and it wasn’t all good.’ ” Powell delivered the line with a disarming grin, and Kester was impressed with his candor.

Indeed, from the White House Fellowship selection through the windup of the Gulf War, good fortune has been Powell’s faithful companion. But, although the long hitches working for Defense Department officials made him powerful friends, they took him away from coveted command jobs.

He was a brigade commander in the 101st Airborne Division and on bivouac with his troops at Ft. Campbell, Ky., when a call on a field telephone summoned him to work for Kester. Then, in 1987, six months after he took command of 75,000 troops in V Corps in Germany, a personal call from Ronald Reagan brought him to the White House to become deputy national security adviser under Carlucci.

He had twice turned down overtures from Carlucci before finally accepting the assignment, but the timing of the White House assignment made it another gigantic opportunity. Arriving in the wake of the Iran-Contra affair, Powell had a chance to help reform the National Security Council operation and cleanse its sullied reputation.

Kenneth Duberstein, Reagan’s last chief of staff, credits Carlucci and Powell with breaking down barriers that had developed around the council and restoring it to political control. “They understood that never again could the NSC operate in the secret atmosphere that existed in the Iran-Contra period,” Duberstein says. “It had to be a part of the team. Carlucci and Powell brought it back.”

At the same time, Powell made more powerful friends, including Howard Baker, who served as White House chief of staff in the waning days of the Reagan Administration. Not long after Baker’s arrival at the White House in 1987, Weinberger stepped down as defense secretary because of his wife’s declining health. In a meeting in the Oval Office, the Pentagon chief told Reagan of his decision, and urged the President to name as his successor Deputy Defense Secretary William Howard Taft IV, a pleasant but colorless bureaucrat.

But Baker urged that Carlucci be considered for the Pentagon. The President insisted that he needed Carlucci in the national security post. “You’ve got a man behind Frank who will be just as good,” Baker told Reagan. So, Powell became the President’s national security adviser, squarely on the fast track from foot soldier to politician.

POWELL’S ASCENT TO THE nation’s highest military post on Oct. 3, 1989, was heralded by martial pomp on the broad lawn of the Pentagon’s river entrance: brass bands, speeches, a review of the Army’s Old Guard. But the general’s mind was elsewhere. As he took the oath of office, an aide stood by with a secure cellular telephone, occasionally whispering messages into the general’s ear about the rapidly unfolding intrigue in Panama, where a band of rebel military officers was attempting to overthrow dictator Manuel A. Noriega.

The Pentagon had been alerted to the possibility of a coup two days earlier--Powell’s first official day as chairman--when rebel leaders contacted U.S. officers in Panama City to ask for American military intervention to back up the plan. Powell recommended to President Bush that the United States withhold aid to the insurgents, despite Bush’s repeated calls for the overthrow of the tyrant. Powell believed that events were moving too quickly for U.S. forces to have a decisive impact. Noriega quickly quashed the coup and executed its leaders.

The takeover attempt prompted Powell, on his first day in office, to confront the central question faced by all military leaders--when and how to use force. Powell and many of his colleagues had come away from Vietnam convinced that a clear statement of mission is a prerequisite to any military action, that military power should not be applied incrementally, that firm public support is essential and that political authorities should not meddle in purely military decisions.

But Powell eventually agreed to the controversial policy of using 25,000 U.S. troops as a posse to round up Noriega, an effort that left the military red-faced for four days before the dictator turned himself in at the residence of the Vatican’s representative in Panama on Christmas Eve.

During the tense days following the December 20 invasion, Powell was frequently on the telephone to the commander in charge of the operation, Gen. Maxwell R. Thurman, probing the progress of the Noriega hunt, asking about the sporadic resistance still offered by the “Dignity Battalions,” inquiring about the constantly changing estimates of Panamanian troops and civilians killed in the lightning assault by U.S. paratroopers.

The frustration of the search for Noriega left a lasting impression. When the Air Force and other elements in the Pentagon later advocated a strategy of personally targeting Saddam Hussein, Powell overruled them, although he did approve air strikes against all of the Iraqi leader’s known headquarters, homes and places of refuge.

“We’re not targeting him per se,” Powell said a day after the air attack on Iraq began. “We are not, because, frankly, I have learned from previous experience how difficult it can be to track a head of state.”

During these and other crises, Powell’s style is often to question as much as to command. An aide to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Carl E. Vuono said it is unusual to spend 20 minutes in the boss’s office without Powell calling on the phone to ask about some matter. In times of crisis, Pete Williams, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, hears from the chairman a dozen or more times a day.

“He doesn’t often express annoyance or anger. He doesn’t belittle his staff,” says aide Smullen. But if he’s disappointed, the offender knows it. “Sometimes it’s just a look"--but an unmistakable, withering look, Smullen says.

IT WAS, POWELL INSISTS, AN innocent answer to a question from a reporter. But the incident--the first and apparently only time he angered the secretary of defense--marked the nearest that Powell has ever come in his career to violating a sacred canon in the U.S. political system: absolute civilian control of the military.

Throughout his tour as chairman, Powell has seen the implosion of the Soviet empire, a changed American role in the world and the demand for drastic cuts in U.S. defense spending. In response, the military is undergoing the broadest restructuring in its history.

Powell quickly realized that Congress and politicians would define the size and shape of the military unless military leaders accepted the inevitable reductions and seized the initiative. So, last April, in the midst of the internal debate about the shape of the future armed forces, he fired a shot across the bow of the Administration by spelling out, in a newspaper interview, his minimum requirements for the military at the end of the century. If Congress and the Administration insisted on troop and spending cuts greater than 25%, the United States would cease to be a superpower, Powell said. He went on to detail his concept of an irreducible “base force"--one able to respond to crises in Europe, the Pacific and the developing world, while maintaining a strategic deterrent of nuclear-armed bombers, missiles and submarines. The plan had been under study in the Pentagon for months; while the politicians wrangled over how to define and present the plan--and how to pay for it--Powell went public.

“Colin wanted that idea out on the table quickly, even before Cheney was ready to discuss it publicly. Cheney wanted to play his cards closer to the vest,” a senior aide to Cheney says. “We considered it a preemption of the secretary.”

Cheney chose not to make a public issue of Powell’s trespass but made his displeasure known privately and then dropped the issue, according to a Cheney aide. Cheney says only that Powell since has been “very, very cautious, very, very careful to operate as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to have respect for civilian authority.”

Since the incident, particularly in their management of the Gulf crisis, the Cheney-Powell partnership has become so close that Pentagon wags call them “Lethal Weapon,” after a pair of violence-prone, black and white cops in the movies.

The global force plan that Powell prematurely disclosed was to have been unveiled by President Bush on August 2; Cheney and Powell were going to brief Congress later that day on the blueprint for America’s future force structure. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait preempted the show, but it only delayed the inevitable debate. And it is there that Colin Powell will likely leave his most lasting mark.

The first big fights on how to cut U.S. forces by 25% have been fought, Powell notes, and they cost the Army 10 divisions, the Navy two aircraft carrier battle groups, the Air Force nine air wings. “But there are a few battles still out there,” he says. “There are some out-year problems (budget choices in the future) that we finessed, and I am not going to talk about them. There are a couple of force structure issues out there that are dillies.”

Powell apparently is referring to a restructuring of the regional command system, under which theater commanders such as Schwarzkopf would control forces assembled from all four military branches. The erosion of service power is certain to accelerate if Powell’s force structure plan is adopted. One of the most bitter fights will come when command of the Navy’s nuclear submarine fleet is transferred to a new strategic forces command that will include the Air Force’s bombers and missiles.

The battles will play out over the next five years, but the next 18 months promise to be the most painful--inevitable force reductions frozen because of the war now must occur. Powell’s beloved Army, for example, must shrink from its current strength of 770,000 men and women to 536,000 by 1996. Among the victims will be many veterans of Desert Storm. An aide to Army Chief of Staff Vuono says that the Army faces the unpleasant prospect of “handing out Purple Hearts and pink slips in the same envelope.”

Squabbles over such things as command configuration may have a profound effect on the U.S. military into the next century, but the shadowboxing and jockeying for partisan political position are what really fascinate Washingtonians.

After one columnist evaluated the discussions about Powell’s possibly replacing Quayle on the GOP ticket next year, the general issued a sharp denial, even if it wasn’t quite Sherman-esque. “I am chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and I intend to remain as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as long as the President wishes me to serve,” he said. “No one ever discussed this subject (the vice presidency) with me, and I know of no reason why this subject should be discussed,” he said. “This is speculation that exists in the minds of people who have to write columns.”

But given his association with the Reagan and Bush administrations, Republicans naturally consider him a potential four-star politician. “I think this guy could be a political candidate,” says Richard S. Williamson, a White House and State Department official during the Reagan Administration. “You have to ask whether he can ask for votes and whether he can ask for money. I think he can. Can he do television? Clearly. Does he have substance? In his field, obviously. The man who captured the drug kingpin and saved the Western World from the devil in the Middle East would have to be a viable candidate. If he called me in 1995, and said, ‘I would like to talk with you about 1996,’ you bet I would be on a plane.”

Another colleague of the general’s from the Reagan White House suggests that Powell has not thought through his own political views on social and domestic issues. But some old friends contend that he personally has no affinity for Republican domestic policies.

GOP leaders “don’t know what Colin Powell thinks about urban enterprise zones; they don’t know what he thought about the 1990 civil rights bill; they don’t know what he thinks about a great many important issues,” says a friend of long standing. “If they really knew what he thinks, they might not like him very much at all.”

Maybe in the coming months, some of these mysteries will be cleared up. Powell, the soldier who loves a good scrap, clearly relishes the coming conflict. He was speaking about future congressional battles but might have been talking more generally when he said, in his throaty chuckle, “Now let the games begin.”