Another Rocky Journey For Colin Powell

When Secretary of State Colin Powell was jeered at the recent World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa, two things happened that illustrate both his importance and his precarious position in the Bush administration. First, the raucous protestors blamed Bush, not Powell, for stonewalling greater development and environmental help to poor nations. Second, the diplomats instantly scrambled to defend him. This shoots to pieces the notion that his political tussle with Bush hawks Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld over Iraq, a formal nuclear treaty ban, increased development, and HIV/AIDS prevention aid to Africa, will force him to resign, or that he'll get the boot.

While Powell won't convince the hawks to embrace his bi-partisan global engagement approach to diplomacy, Bush simply can't afford to dump him -- yet. He's simply too popular, well respected, and admired by European, Asian and African diplomats. He is constantly in demand to attend the top international summits, confabs, and symposiums on development issues. He gives the Bush administration foreign policy luster and credibility that it can't buy, and Powell has always been the consummate team player. In the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations, he took orders, followed directions, and strayed not one inch from their policy positions. He's pretty much done the same with Bush Jr.

But this does not mean that Powell is untouchable. Despite his impeccable mil itary credentials, unwavering party loyalty, towering prestige, and diplomatic savvy, Powell has always stirred deep furor in the bowels of conservative Republicans. They have never been awestruck by the general's bars, commanding personality, and public popularity. That became glaringly evident when Powell made some soundings that he might seek the Republican presidential nomination in 1996. Pat Buchanan and a mighty coalition of conservative groups were appalled.

They sternly warned that they would make "war" on him if he were really serious about grabbing the nomination. If Powell had ignored their threat and bulled ahead in his bid for the party's nomination they would have pounded him for backing affirmative action and abortion rights. They would have dredged up the charge that he did not take Saddam Hussein out when he had the chance as chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs during the Gulf War. The general got their message and quickly opted not to seek the nomination.

Even so, Reagan, Bush Sr., Gerald Ford, William Buckley and nearly every other Republican big wig were star struck enough with the general's magnetism and perceived popularity that they still wanted him on the Republican ticket. They remembered that in some opinion polls, Powell actually made it a horserace in a head to head contest with President Clinton. They figured that as the party's vice-presidential candidate he could breathe some life into the stillborn campaign of Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole while not alienating the party's hard liners.

This was the stuff of myth and delusion. In the much dreamed about polls that showed Powell beating all Republicans and giving Clinton a run for his money, voters were asked to vote for non-candidate Powell who hadn't run or campaigned for anything.

If Powell had actually chosen to run he would have been under the most savage scrutiny of any candidate in American presidential history. The public and press on foreign and domestic policy issues would have mercilessly grilled him. Powell would have been forced to answer the same tough questions and face the same objections as the Republican vice-presidential candidate as he would have as a presidential candidate. And Republican hard rightists would have objected just as strongly to the prospect of Powell being one heartbeat away from the presidency.

The talk of Powell as Republican VP candidate in 1996 fizzled just as fast as the talk of Powell as presidential candidate did. In 2000, Powell knew that the same Republican rightists still itched to pick a fight with him. He quickly scotched any talk about a Republican presidential candidacy. The Secretary of State post was a much better deal. It gave him a high political profile without the risk of stirring the rancor of the right. As a Bush cabinet nominee, rather than a presidential candidate, Powell would implement, not make, policy. This supposedly would keep him out of political harm's way.

But this also has proven to be the stuff of delusion. The battle within the Bush administration over Iraq will almost certainly heat up as the debate moves to Congress and the fall elections get closer. It won't be enough for Powell to say that Hussein is a bad guy and must go. He must vigorously and enthusiastically cheerlead the administration's war-drum policy, or he may still go.

For now, Powell will dutifully fulfill his role as Bush's great diplomatic white hope. But he'll be closely watched. And anything he says that appears to deviate from Bush's foreign policy line will bring more howls from conservatives. That could mean another rocky journey for the general.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).

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