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Does the U.N. U-turn signal a comeback for Colin Powell?

Donald Rumsfeld
Very rummy for old Rummy

The whiff of a battle royal comes wafting up the Potomac. It has all the markings of a bureaucratic stink bomb of a fight, with fisticuffs, body blows, and incessant acts of treachery. The gong for the first round sounded in today’s Washington Post, which reports that President George W. Bush agreed to offer more authority to a U.N. peacekeeping force in Iraq after Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has long favored a more multilateral approach, came into the Oval Office last Tuesday—Bush’s first day back from the ranch—and announced that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were on his side. Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, “whose office had been slow to embrace the U.N. resolution,” the Post notes, “quickly agreed.” As, of course, did Bush.

Talk about “coalition forces”! Powell, whose political demise has been forecast practically since he joined this administration, may—once again—be back in action, possibly just aft of the helm. And, if that proves true, his route to regained power will have been through his foe’s own backdoor.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has run a very tight ship at the Pentagon until now, concentrating power among his few trusted mates in the E-Ring, quashing all outside dissent, and unfurling his mast across the river to Foggy Bottom. Last May, a “veteran foreign service officer,” troubled by Rummy’s usurpation of duties usually assumed by the State Department, told the Los Angeles Times, “I just wake up in the morning and tell myself, ‘There’s been a military coup,’ and then it all makes sense.”

Powell now stands, at the very least, to grab back some of his traditional powers. One Pentagon officer told me this afternoon that Powell’s move marks a “serious shot across Rumsfeld’s bow” and “suggests there’s a chink in Rummy’s armor.”

It comes as no surprise that he is aided in his maneuverings by the military brass, despite the fact that these officers formally owe their allegiance to Rumsfeld. First, Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff himself, speaks their language. Second, they don’t like Rumsfeld—for both parochial and sensible reasons. The parochial: Rumsfeld is pushing a brand of “military reform” that emphasizes faster, lighter combat forces, and that, as a result, would crash the careers of those officers, who have thrived on the old ways. The sensible: Rumsfeld tends to reject these officers’ advice simply because it is their advice; he has committed their soldiers to missions—especially in Iraq—with what they have long regarded as insufficient resources.

Rumsfeld’s star rose, to untouchable heights, when he proved his critics wrong and conquered Baghdad with little more than three divisions—not even fully equipped divisions at that. But now his star has dimmed—nearly collapsed—amid the abject failure of his postwar planning (or, rather, the apparent lack of such planning). The U.S. occupation in Iraq has now passed a terrible divide—the point at which more troops have died since the war officially ended than during the war itself. One American soldier a day is dying, and, nearly as significant, 10 per day are suffering combat injuries. Rumsfeld and his aides—most notably, Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary Douglas Feith, and the former chairman of the Defense Policy Board, Richard Perle—fell all too gullibly for the vision held out by Ahmad Chalabi: that he and other exiles would restore order quickly, that the American liberators would be greeted with flowers and candy, and that the Pentagon would be able to bring home all but 30,000 soldiers by September (180,000, in fact, remain).

In short, Rummy and his crew placed their bets not just on the wrong man but—worse still, in an administration that claims to value hard-headed power politics above all—on a wispy dream. So now, it seems, the chiefs are coming to collect on those bets. And Colin Powell, the retired-general-turned-top-statesman, is corralling the collectors.

In an intriguing detail, the Post reporters, Dana Milbank and Thomas Ricks, note that Gen. John Abizaid, the new and apparently very smart head of U.S. Central Command, “talks frequently with Powell.” Clearly it is most unusual, perhaps unprecedented since the time of Henry Kissinger or George Marshall, for a field commander to hold a regular channel of communication with the secretary of state.

Powell does seem to be running this show. The chronology makes the point. On July 27, Gen. Abizaid met in Qatar with Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the JCS. Myers came back to Washington, convinced that the U.S. mission in Iraq required deeper U.N. involvement. On Aug. 8, Myers met with President Bush at the ranch and told him so. But nothing happened—Pentagon officials continued to dismiss the idea of sharing power with others—until Aug. 26, when Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, publicly held out the possibility of turning over at least some decision-making to a U.N. authority. Armitage reportedly made this comment without clearing it with the White House or the Pentagon. It is inconceivable that he could have done so without clearance, if not active encouragement, from Powell.

Powell’s—now Bush’s—proposal for an expanded U.N. authority would still leave an American general as the military commander. There is no inconsistency here; many U.N. peacekeeping forces, for example in Bosnia and Kosovo, have operated with this setup. The conflicts will come over how much power will remain in the hands of Paul Bremer, the current provisional command authority, who reports directly to Rumsfeld.

Perhaps there will be other conflicts, in other theaters. Will Powell extend his coalition with the chiefs to, say, the nuclear talks with North Korea? Though Bush finally agreed with the State Department position to attend these talks, the hard-liners at the Pentagon still seem to be in control. Earlier this week, Wang Yi, China’s vice foreign minister, said the Americans were “the main obstacle” to progress at the talks. Keep in mind that, on this issue, China is very much on the U.S. side and, to everyone’s surprise, has hammered the North Korean delegates on the need to dismantle their nuclear-weapons program. However, Yi said, the Americans were refusing to negotiate, and North Korea can’t be expected to give up its nukes—the only resource it has—for nothing. It is well-known that certain State Department officials agree with this position and want the administration to take a more flexible stance. And, because they have concluded that a pre-emptive strike on North Korea would be too risky (and an invasion too hard), some of the brass, however reluctantly, agree, too.

And so it seems there’s a fight on over the direction of U.S. foreign policy, over the legacy of the Bush administration, over—as G.W. Bush might see it—the president’s soul. Stay tuned.