Powell's Credibility Rides on U.N. Vote

Times Staff Writer

Saddam Hussein's fate isn't the only one that hangs in the balance at the United Nations this week. So may the legacy of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

Having persuaded President Bush to work through the United Nations to confront Baghdad, Powell must now try to deliver Security Council approval for Bush's plan to forcibly disarm Iraq and oust its president. His credibility rides on a favorable vote, as does his standing as a counterweight to the administration's hard-liners.

Powell has fought many battles in his distinguished career, from Vietnam as a young captain to the Persian Gulf War as a four-star general. But this time he's battling on three fronts -- against a slippery Hussein, against recalcitrant allies and, most painfully for Powell, against the antagonistic hawks within the administration.

Powell plans to work the phones today, U.S. officials said, in a last-ditch campaign to squeeze out the nine-vote minimum and stave off vetoes for passage of an American-backed resolution. For weeks, he has confidently predicted to aides that he could pull it off.

In his autobiography, "My American Journey," Powell outlines 13 rules that he says have guided his life. The last of them: "Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier."

But he may need more than his boyish optimism, trademark charisma or even stature as the world's most powerful diplomat to ensure that the cliffhanger at the United Nations does not go down in defeat -- a real possibility after the acrimonious session at the Security Council on Friday.

France, Russia and China have at least implicitly threatened to use their vetoes. French President Jacques Chirac kept up the pressure this weekend by lobbying for an emergency summit of heads of state from council member countries to find a compromise to war.

Only Bulgaria and Cameroon have formally joined the three resolution co-sponsors -- the United States, Britain and Spain. But Chile, a key swing vote, said Saturday that a suggested March 17 deadline for Hussein to disarm or face war was too short. And all the others have refused to publicly declare.

Powell's first rule: "It ain't as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning."

Even before the vote, however, Powell is coming under some of the most blistering criticism of his four decades in government service -- from Republicans and Democrats, hawks and doves, most of them otherwise still his admirers -- about how he has orchestrated U.S. diplomatic strategy on Iraq.

"Powell doesn't do as well on strategy as on management. I think Powell has lost this round," said a ranking Republican official who served during Operation Desert Storm in the first Bush administration and asked not to be identified.

After the weapons inspectors' Jan. 27 report on Iraq's progress failed to persuade the Security Council to act, the former official said, Bush decided that the U.N. route would involve an endless argument about continuing inspections.

"The president said, 'Forget it.' And Powell said, 'Yes, sir,' " the official added.

The hawks also outflanked Powell, deploying so many troops -- in the name of putting pressure on Baghdad -- that any prospect of prolonging diplomacy or inspections quickly became a moot point, observers say.

"Powell got a little outmaneuvered here. By the time we had 160,000 troops in the field, the option of keeping them there through August began to look pretty unrealistic," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Powell's fourth rule: "It can be done!"

But even some of Powell's staff have wondered about his tactics, noting that he has barely traveled to sell America's case since Bush called on the United Nations to end the 12-year disarmament saga in Iraq.

In contrast, during several months of high-profile diplomacy to persuade Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait in 1990 and 1991, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III spent weeks on the road visiting 41 countries on five continents. The first Bush administration forged unusual unanimity and a huge coalition to confront Hussein.

"Powell seems a little bit absent in comparison," a State Department official said. "He feels he can be effective using telephone diplomacy, but a lot of these governments want the benefits of his physical presence. A line or two in the local media about a telephone call doesn't compare with the high visibility of TV pictures showing him visiting."

In a hint of the dilemma he faces, other U.S. officials and foreign policy analysts say Powell didn't dare leave town for fear of what administration hawks might sell the White House in his absence. Neoconservatives in the administration often talk about "us versus them," referring not to their conflict with Iraq nor with balking allies. The "them" is Powell's State Department. In his place, Powell has opted to dispatch lower-ranking staff, who often keep exhausting travel schedules.

"The war within the administration is almost as fierce as anything we face abroad. That may be a bit of a caricature, but the bureaucratic infighting is pretty fierce. Powell may feel that if he goes away and leaves his camp unattended, then opposing camps may do more harm than the good he could do by traveling abroad. Some crazy initiative could pop up that he wasn't around to put back in the box," said Moises Naim, editor of Foreign Policy magazine.

Powell's 12th rule is, "Don't take counsel of your fears or naysayers."

But pressure from the hawks has undermined Powell's strategy from the beginning. In an August video conference with Bush and the national security team, Powell mapped out his grand strategy to go to the United Nations, get a new resolution, press for a final round of inspections and then, if Iraq failed to surrender its suspected arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, use force. According to all accounts, Powell prevailed despite extensive questioning.

Yet days later, Vice President Dick Cheney challenged the idea publicly. New inspections were a trap that would not ensure compliance, he said. "On the contrary, there is a great danger that it would provide false comfort that Saddam was somehow 'back in his box,' " Cheney said.

Powell is very much a team player and denies splits that others talk about openly. His second rule is: "Get mad. Then get over it."

Because he picks his battles, Powell sometimes leaves the impression that others prevail. He has not taken on colleagues who have undermined his position and scared or offended allies, for example, as when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld lambasted opponents Germany and France as being "old Europe" and refused to rule out using nuclear weapons on Iraq, U.S. officials say.

The latest criticism, from neoconservatives as well as some Democrats, is that Powell should not have insisted on going back to the U.N. for a resolution authorizing the use of force.

Military intervention in Iraq has "ample justification in international rules and laws and could be justified by existing U.N. resolutions -- without the need for a new one," Richard Holbrooke, a U.N. ambassador during the Clinton administration, wrote in the Washington Post last month.

In a similar situation, the Clinton White House opted to avoid the Security Council rather than face a Russian veto when it launched the 1999 air campaign against Yugoslavia for its policy against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo province -- a far less compelling case than Iraq, Holbrooke said.

On the other end of the spectrum, conservatives make no secret of their hope that the new resolution will be vetoed, as proof that the United Nations, and Powell's preference for trying multilateralism, doesn't work.

Powell's seventh rule is: "You can't make someone else's choices. You shouldn't let someone else make yours."

Whatever happens this week, he still believes that it was worth going to the United Nations last fall -- when the Security Council voted 15-0 to order Iraq's disarmament -- and even now. Trying another round of inspections "was an essential part of determining whether or not Saddam Hussein is serious," he told ABC's Peter Jennings on Friday.

As Powell braces for the U.N. vote this week, his third rule of life may be the one that he needs the most. "Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it."

Times staff writer Doyle McManus contributed to this report.

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