"The vice president, after 9/11, clearly saw Saddam Hussein as a threat to peace," Bush said in an interview last December. "And was unwavering in his view that Saddam was a real danger."
Powell Gets Bush's Ear
Colin Powell had always been just one level beneath Cheney in the pecking order. Over three decades he had worked his way up to become the top uniformed military man, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and had wound up reporting to Cheney, who had been an improbable pick as defense secretary for Bush's father when the nomination of Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.) was rejected by his Senate colleagues. Then as secretary of state, the senior Cabinet post, Powell was again outranked by Cheney, this time the unexpected pick as vice president. At National Security Council meetings, Cheney sat at Bush's right hand, Powell at his left.
In 1991, Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, greeted U.S. airmen in Saudi Arabia. Of his relationship with Cheney, Powell wrote, "He and I had never, in nearly four years, spent a single purely social hour together."
(Bob Daughterty - AP)
Powell was often confounded by Cheney. Years earlier, writing his best-selling memoir, Powell kept trying to pin down the remoteness of the man and had drafted and redrafted the sections on Cheney, sending them off to his best friend, Richard L. Armitage, now deputy secretary of state. Not quite right, Armitage kept replying. Powell finally told Armitage he had found a way to be "relatively truthful but not harmful."
In the final version of "My American Journey," published in 1995, Powell wrote of Cheney, "He and I had never, in nearly four years, spent a single purely social hour together." He told of Cheney's last day as defense secretary, when he had gone to Cheney's suite of offices at the Pentagon and asked, "Where's the secretary?" Informed that Cheney had left hours ago, Powell wrote, "I was disappointed, even hurt, but not surprised. The lone cowboy had gone off into the sunset without even a last, 'So long.' "
Powell had different issues with Bush. They were uncomfortable with each other. A sense of competition hovered in the background of their relationship, a low-voltage pulse nearly always present. Powell had considered running for president in 1996. He had had stratospheric poll ratings as the country's most admired man. For personal reasons and after making a calculation that there were no guarantees in American politics, he had decided not to run. But he had been the man in the wings, the former general and war hero, a moderate voice who would not run in 2000 when George W. Bush did.
For the first 16 months of the administration, Powell had been "in the refrigerator," or worse, as he and Armitage called his frequent isolation. It gnawed at him when stories appeared in the media suggesting that he was going to resign, what he privately called the "Powell's-on-his-way-out-again mode." As planning for a war with Iraq became the focus of the war cabinet, Powell became more and more frustrated. Armitage had been pushing hard for Powell to request private time with the president to build a personal relationship -- and present his case.
He achieved a breakthrough of sorts on Aug. 5, 2002, when Bush invited Powell and Condoleezza Rice to the residence. The meeting expanded to include dinner in the family dining room and then continued in the president's office.
Powell's notes filled three or four pages. War could destabilize friendly governments in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, he said. It could divert energy from almost everything else, not just the war on terrorism, and dramatically affect the supply and price of oil. What of the image of an American general running an Arab country, a Gen. MacArthur in Baghdad? Powell asked. How long would it be? No one could know. How would success be defined? War would take down Hussein, and "you will become the government until you get a new government."
By the time they were in Bush's office, Powell was on a roll.
"You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people," he told the president. "You will own all their hopes, aspirations and problems. You'll own it all." Privately, Powell and Armitage called this the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it.
"It's going to suck the oxygen out of everything," the secretary continued. So as not to sidestep the politics of it, he added, "This will become the first term." The clear implication was: Did the president want to be defined this way? Did he want to run for reelection on an Iraq war?
Powell thought he was scoring. Iraq has a history that is quite complex, he said. The Iraqis have never had a democracy. "So you need to understand that this is not going to be a walk in the woods."
The president listened and asked some questions but did not push back that much. Finally he looked at Powell. "What should I do? What else can I do?"
Powell realized he needed to offer a solution. "You can still make a pitch for a coalition or U.N. action to do what needs to be done," he said. The United Nations was only one way, but some way had to be found to recruit allies, to internationalize the problem.
Though the conversation was tense several times, Powell felt that he had left nothing unsaid. There were no histrionics. The president thanked him after two hours, an extraordinary amount of time for Powell without static from Cheney and Rumsfeld.
A Strong Assertion From Cheney
Cheney saw he was rapidly losing ground. Talk of the United Nations, diplomacy and now patience was wrong in his view. Nothing could more effectively slow down the march to war -- a war he deemed necessary. It was the only way. His former colleagues from the Ford and the first Bush administrations were weighing in with a blizzard of commentary -- Scowcroft with his cautionary antiwar message, former secretary of state Baker, who urged that unilateral action be avoided. Former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger, dean of realpolitik foreign policy, had on Aug. 12, 2002, published a long, somewhat convoluted piece in The Washington Post supporting Bush for forcing the issue of Hussein to a head, but warning about the importance of building support from the public and the world.
The New York Times had made the Scowcroft and Kissinger positions the lead article on its front page on Aug. 16: "Top Republicans Break with Bush on Iraq Strategy." It was a misinterpretation of Kissinger's remarks, which more or less backed Bush. The Times eventually ran a correction, but Cheney and his deputy, Scooter Libby, found the article extremely aggravating. The correction would never catch up with the front-page headline, and Scowcroft's dissent was indisputable and more potent. It looked as if the march to war was put off.
Cheney decided that everyone was offering an opinion except the administration. There was no stated administration position and he wanted to put one out, make a big speech if necessary. It was highly unusual for the vice president to speak on such a major issue before the president, who was going to address the United Nations on Iraq on Sept. 12. But Cheney couldn't wait. Nature and Washington policy debates abhor a vacuum. He was not going to cede the field to Scowcroft, Baker, a misinterpreted Kissinger -- or Powell. He spoke privately with the president, who gave his approval without reviewing the details of what Cheney might say.
At an NSC meeting, Cheney said to the president, "Well, I'm going to give that speech."
"Don't get me in trouble," Bush half joked.