washingtonpost.com  > World > Middle East > The Gulf
'BUSH AT WAR' | Confronting Iraq

A Struggle for the President's Heart and Mind

Powell Journeyed From Isolation to Winning the Argument on Iraq

By Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 17, 2002; Page A01

This is the first of three days of excerpts from the book "Bush At War" copyright 2002 by Bob Woodward, Simon & Schuster.

In early August, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made the diplomatic rounds in Indonesia and the Philippines and, as always, kept in touch with what was happening at home. Iraq was continuing to bubble. Brent Scowcroft, the mild-mannered national security adviser to President Bush's father, had declared on a Sunday morning talk show Aug. 4 that an attack on Iraq could turn the Middle East into a "cauldron and thus destroy the war on terrorism."

Blunt talk, but Powell basically agreed. He had not made clear his own analysis and conclusions to the president and realized he needed to do so. On the long flight back, from nearly halfway around the world, he jotted down some notes. Virtually all the Iraq discussions in the National Security Council had been about war plans -- how to attack, when, with what force levels, military strike scenario this and military strike scenario that. It was clear to him now that the context was being lost, the attitude and views of the rest of the world that Powell knew and lived with. His notes filled three or four pages.

During the Persian Gulf War, when he had been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell had played the role of reluctant warrior, arguing to the first President Bush, perhaps too mildly, that containing Iraq might work, that war might not be necessary. But as the principal military adviser, he hadn't pressed his arguments that forcefully because they were less military than political. Now as secretary of state, his account was politics -- the politics of the world. He decided he had to come down very hard, state his convictions and conclusions so there would be no doubt as to where he stood. The president had been hearing plenty from Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, a kind of A-team inside the war cabinet. Powell wanted to present the B-team, the alternative view that he believed had not been aired. He owed the president more than PowerPoint briefings.

In Washington, he told Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, that he wanted to see the president.

It had been a long, hard road that brought Powell to make that request. During his first months as secretary of state, he never really closed the personal loop with Bush, never established a comfort level -- the natural, at-ease state of closeness that both had with others.

Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser, felt Powell was beyond political control and operating out of a sense of entitlement. "It's constantly, you know, 'I'm in charge, and this is all politics, and I'm going to win the internecine political game,' " Rove said privately. Rove, for one, thought Powell had somehow lost a step, and that it was odd to see him uncomfortable in the presence of the president.

Even after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Powell at times was isolated politically, and the White House kept him off the television talk shows. Powell and his deputy and closest friend, Richard L. Armitage, joked privately that Powell had been put in the "icebox" -- to be used only when needed.

In early October 2001, the White House called Armitage and asked him to make the rounds on the television talk shows. He had little interest in appearing, and he politely declined. When they pressed, Armitage went to Powell and said, "Look, that's not my deal."

"Nah, I'm in the icebox again," Powell replied. Maybe because he was pushing to release a white paper detailing evidence against Osama bin Laden. "We've got to get the story out, so go do it," he told Armitage.

On Oct. 3, Armitage dutifully appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" and CNN's "Live This Morning."

One of Powell's greatest difficulties was that he was more or less supposed to pretend in public that the sharp differences in the war cabinet did not exist. The president would not tolerate public discord. Powell was also held in check by his own code -- a soldier obeys.

Bush might order, Go get the guns! Get my horses! -- all the Texas, Alamo macho that made Powell uncomfortable. But he believed and hoped that the president knew better, that he would see the go-it-alone approach did not stand further analysis. Hopefully, the success in the first phase of the war in Afghanistan had provided the template for that understanding.

The ghosts in the machine in Powell's view were Rumsfeld and Cheney. Too often they went for the guns and the horses.

A Nearly Impossible Mission

In the spring of 2002, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became so violent that it threatened to overwhelm the war on terrorism. The president said he wanted to send Powell to the Middle East to see if he could calm things down. Powell was reluctant. He said he didn't have much to offer, too little leverage with either side.

We are in trouble, the president told Powell. "You're going to have to spend some political capital. You have plenty. I need you to do it."

"Yes, sir," Powell said.

He went to the region, made little headway and after 10 days was preparing his departure statement that proposed an international conference and security negotiations.

Rice called Armitage at the State Department to ask him to tell Powell to scale back his statement, make less of a commitment about future negotiations. There were real concerns that Powell was going too far.

In Washington, Armitage was almost chained to his desk so he could talk to Powell between his meetings. It was midnight, 7 a.m. in Jerusalem, when Armitage explained Rice's concerns.

Powell went nuts. Everybody wanted to grade papers! he said. No one wanted to step up, face reality! They wanted to be pro-Israel and leave him holding the Palestinian bag by himself. They had sent him out on a nearly impossible mission.

"I'm holding back the [expletive] gates here," Armitage reported. "They're eating cheese on you" -- an old military expression for gnawing on someone and enjoying it. People in the Defense Department and the vice president's office were trying to do him in, Armitage said. He had heard from reliable media contacts that a barrage was being unloaded on Powell. He was leaning too much to Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. The White House was going to trim Powell's sails; he was going to fail. Armitage said he couldn't verify who was leaking this, but he had names of senior people in Defense and in Cheney's office.

"That's unbelievable," Powell said. "I just heard the same thing." He had had cocktails with some reporters traveling with him, and they reported that their sources in Cheney's office were declaring he had gone too far, was off the reservation, and about to be reined in.

"People are really putting your [expletive] in the street," Armitage said.

CONTINUED    1 2 3 4 5    Next >

© 2002 The Washington Post Company