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A Struggle for the President's Heart and Mind

Rice reached Powell and said all the others thought it was best he say nothing more, and announce that he was going back to Washington to consult with the president.

Powell, who had been engaged in a grueling diplomatic shuttle, erupted. Was he just supposed to say, thank you very much for your hospitality, good-bye!

Rice said she was worried that he was committing the president and the administration more deeply than they all wanted.

Guess what? Powell countered. They were already in. They couldn't launch an initiative with a high-profile presidential speech like the one Bush had given in the Rose Garden on April 4, and not expect to propose some plan or follow-up. But he agreed to trim back on his statement.

Powell was up to about 3 a.m. writing his remarks, knowing that he was out at the end of a long stick.

On April 17, he made his departure statement in Jerusalem. It was 20 paragraphs of Powell at his diplomatic best -- smooth, upbeat, even eloquent. He was able to dress it up and point toward a negotiated future, while avoiding mention of his failure to get a cease-fire.

It didn't make much of a splash. He hadn't solved the Middle East problem; there was no breakthrough. But it settled some things down for the moment, and the president later thanked him.

Face Time, and Headway

Powell still had not squared his relationship with the president. During the first half of 2002, Armitage had received reliable reports that Rumsfeld was requesting and having periodic private meetings with Bush. Powell was not particularly worried, because he could usually find out what had transpired through Rice, though she had had difficulties initially finding out herself.

"It seems to me that you ought to be requesting some time with the president," Armitage suggested to Powell. Face time was critical, and it was a relationship that Powell had not mastered.

Powell said he recalled his time as national security adviser for Reagan when everyone was always trying to see the president. He didn't want to intrude. If Bush wanted to see him, any time or any place, he was, of course, available. He saw Bush all the time at meetings, and he was able to convey his views.

"You've got to start doing it," Armitage said. Powell was the secretary of state. It wouldn't be an imposition. Better relations would help in all the battles, would help the department across the board.

In the late spring of 2002 -- some 16 months into the Bush presidency -- Powell started requesting private time with Bush. He did it through Rice, who sat in on the meetings that took place about once a week for 20 to 30 minutes. It seemed to help, but it was like his experience in the Middle East: no big breakthroughs.

During the summer, Powell was over at the White House one day with time to kill before a meeting with Rice. The president spotted him and invited him into the Oval Office. They talked alone for about 30 minutes. They shot the breeze and relaxed. The conversation was about everything and nothing.

"I think we're really making some headway in the relationship," Powell reported to Armitage afterward. The chasm seemed to be closing. "I know we really connected."

The Big Picture and a Breakthrough

It was in this context that Bush invited Powell and Rice to the White House residence on the evening of Monday, Aug. 5, to discuss Iraq. The meeting expanded into dinner and then moved to the president's office in the residence.

Powell told Bush that as he was getting his head around the Iraq question, Bush needed to think about the broader issues, all the consequences of war.

With his notes by his side, a double-spaced outline on loose-leaf paper, Powell said the president had to consider what a military operation against Iraq would do in the Arab world. He dealt with the leaders and foreign ministers in these countries as secretary of state. The entire region could be destabilized -- friendly regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan could be put in jeopardy or overthrown. Anger and frustration at America abounded. War could change everything in the Middle East.

It would suck the oxygen out of just about everything else the United States was doing, not only in the war on terrorism, but also in all other diplomatic, defense and intelligence relationships, Powell said. The economic implications could be staggering, potentially driving the supply and price of oil in directions that were as-yet unimagined. All this in a time of an international economic slump. The cost of occupying Iraq after a victory would be expensive. The economic impact on the region, the world and the United States domestically had to be considered.

Following victory, and Powell believed they would surely prevail, the day-after implications were giant. What of the image of an American general running an Arab country for some length of time? he asked. A General MacArthur in Baghdad? This would be a big event within Iraq, the region and the world. How long would it last? No one could know. How would success be defined?

"It's nice to say we can do it unilaterally," Powell told the president bluntly, "except you can't." A successful military plan would require access to bases and facilities in the region, overflight rights. They would need allies. This would not be the Gulf War, a nice two-hour trip from a fully cooperative Saudi Arabia over to Kuwait City -- the target of liberation just 40 miles away. Now the geography would be formidable. Baghdad was a couple of hundred miles across Mesopotamia.

The Middle East crisis was still ever-present. That was the issue the Arab and Muslim world wanted addressed. A war on Iraq would open Israel to attack by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who had launched Scud missiles at it during the Gulf War.

Hussein was crazy, a menace, a real threat, unpredictable, but he had been largely contained and deterred since the Gulf War. A new war could unleash precisely what they wanted to prevent -- Hussein on a rampage, a last desperate stand, perhaps using his weapons of mass destruction.

On the intelligence side, as the president knew, the problem was also immense, Powell said. They had not been able to find Osama bin Laden, Mohammad Omar and other al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Afghanistan. They didn't know where Hussein was. He had all kinds of tricks and deceptions. He had an entire state at his disposal to hide in. They did not need another possibly fruitless manhunt.

Powell's presentation was an outpouring of both analysis and emotion that encompassed his entire experience -- 35 years in the military, former national security adviser and now chief diplomat. The president seemed intrigued as he listened and asked questions but did not push back that much.

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