Behind Diplomatic Moves, Military Plan Was Launched
"You're sure?" Powell asked.
Yes, said Bush.
"You understand the consequences," Powell said in a half question. For nearly six months, he had been hammering on this theme -- that the United States would be taking down a regime, would have to govern Iraq, and the ripple effect in the Middle East and the world could not be predicted. The run-up to war had sucked nearly all the oxygen from every other issue in foreign relations. War would surely get all the air and attention.
Yeah, I do, the president answered.
"You know that you're going to be owning this place?" Powell said, reminding Bush of what he had told him at a dinner the previous August in which Powell had made the case against military action in Iraq. An invasion would mean assuming the hopes, aspirations and all the troubles of Iraq. Powell wasn't sure whether Bush had fully understood the meaning and consequences of total ownership.
But I think I have to do this, the president said.
Right, Powell said.
I just want to let you know that, Bush said, making it clear this was not a discussion, but the president informing one of his Cabinet members of his decision. The fork in the road had been reached and Bush had chosen war.
As the only person in Bush's inner circle who was seriously and actively pressing the diplomatic track, Powell figured the president wanted to make sure he would support the war. It was in some way a gut check, but Powell didn't feel the president was making a loyalty check. No way on God's earth could he walk away at that point. It would have been an unthinkable act of disloyalty to the president, to Powell's own soldier's code, to the United States military, and mostly to the several hundred thousand who would be going to war.
"Are you with me on this?" the president asked him now. "I think I have to do this. I want you with me."
"I'll do the best I can," Powell answered. "Yes, sir, I will support you. I'm with you, Mr. President."
"Time to put your war uniform on," the president said to the retired general.
In all the discussions, meetings, chats and back-and-forth, in Powell's grueling duels with Rumsfeld and Defense, the president had never once asked Powell, Would you do this? What's your overall advice? The bottom line?
Perhaps the president feared the answer. Perhaps Powell feared giving it. It would, after all, have been an opportunity to say he disagreed. But they had not reached that core question, and Powell would not push. He would not intrude on that most private of presidential space -- where a president made decisions of war and peace -- unless he was invited. He had not been invited.
Bush's meeting with Powell lasted 12 minutes. "It was a very cordial conversation," the president recalled. "It wasn't a long conversation," he noted. "There wasn't much debate: It looks like we're headed to war."
The president stated emphatically that though he had asked Powell to be with him and support him in a war, "I didn't need his permission."
Poland Signs On to the War
Before a meeting with Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski the next day, Jan. 14, Bush's frustration again flared in public as he shifted position on the time remaining to Hussein. While eight days earlier he had said publicly that the Iraqi president has "got time," he told reporters that morning, "Time is running out on Saddam Hussein."
Bush knew he had no better friend on the European continent than the popular, second-term Polish president who had agreed to send troops to the war. The Bushes had hosted Kwasniewski and his wife for a rare state dinner the previous July.
"The level of anti-Americanism is extremely high," Kwasniewski said at their private meeting. He had a serious political problem because of his support for Bush.
"Success helps change public opinion," Bush said. "Should we commit troops, we'll feed the people of Iraq." He said it as if that humanitarian gesture might have an impact on public opinion in Poland. He said there was a protocol a country could follow to show the world that it was ridding itself of unconventional weapons -- one that South Africa had followed, visibly and aggressively opening up records and facilities for inspections. Hussein had not.
"In my judgment it's time to move soon, but we won't act precipitously," Bush said, adding, "but time is running out. It's sooner rather than later."
"We will win," the Polish president said, but sounding like Colin Powell, he added plaintively, "but what are the consequences?" After a pause, he continued, "You need wide, broad international support. We are with you, don't worry about it. The risk is the U.N. will collapse. What will replace it?"
These were hard questions that Bush sidestepped, saying only, "We believe that Islam like Christianity can grow in a free and democratic manner."
For Bush, the important things were that Poland would be with him and would supply troops.
Mark Malseed contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
In April 2002, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, center, briefs President Bush, Vice President Cheney, left, and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice in the Oval Office.
(Frank Johnston -- The Washington Post)
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