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A Struggle for the President's Heart and Mind

And Powell realized that his arguments begged the question of, well, what do you do? He knew that Bush liked, in fact insisted on, solutions, and Powell wanted to take his views all the way down the trail. "You can still make a pitch for a coalition or U.N. action to do what needs to be done," he said. International support had to be garnered. The United Nations was only one way. But some way had to be found to recruit allies. A war with Iraq could be much more complicated and bloody than the war in Afghanistan, which was Exhibit A demonstrating the necessity of a coalition.

The president said he preferred to have an international coalition, and he loved building one for the war in Afghanistan.

Powell responded that he believed the pitch could still be made to the international community to build support.

What did he think the incentives and motives might be of some of the critical players, such as the Russians or the French, the president asked. What would they do?

As a matter of diplomacy, Powell said he thought the president and the administration could bring most countries along.

The secretary felt the discussion became tense several times as he pressed, but in the end he believed that he had left nothing unsaid.

The president thanked him. It had been two hours -- nothing of Clintonesque, late-night-at-the-dorm proportions, but extraordinary for this president and Powell. And Powell felt he had stripped his argument down to the essentials. The private meeting with just Bush and Rice had meant there was not a lot of static coming in from other quarters -- Cheney and Rumsfeld.

Rice thought the headline was, "Powell Makes Case for Coalition as Only Way to Assure Success."

"That was terrific," Rice said the next day in a phone call to Powell, "and we need to do more of those."

The tipoff about the potential importance of the evening was when White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. also called the next day and asked Powell to come over and give him the same presentation, notes and all.

The dinner was a home run, Powell felt.

Public Speculation, Private Decisions

Bush left for his Crawford, Tex., working vacation the next afternoon, as Iraq continued to play to a packed house in the news media. There was little other news, and speculation about Iraq filled the void. Every living former national security adviser or former secretary of state who could lift pen to paper was on the street with his or her views.

On Wednesday, Aug. 14, the principals -- Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice and CIA Director George J. Tenet -- met in Washington without the president.

Powell said they needed to think about getting a coalition for action against Iraq, some kind of international cover at least. The Brits were with us, he noted, but their support was fragile in the absence of some international coalition or cover. They needed something. Most of Europe was the same way, he reported, as was all of the Arabian peninsula, especially the U.S. friends in the Gulf region who would be most essential for war. And Turkey, which shared a 100-mile border with Iraq.

The first opportunity the president would have after his vacation to formally address the subject of Iraq was a scheduled speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 12, Powell pointed out. There had been talk about making the speech about American values or the Middle East. But Iraq was Topic A. "I can't imagine him going there and not speaking about this," Powell said.

Rice agreed. In the atmosphere of continuing media discussion, not to talk about Iraq might suggest that the administration was not serious about Hussein's threat, or that it was operating in total secrecy. And Bush liked to explain to the public at least the general outlines of where his policy was heading.

They discussed how they would face an endless process of debate and compromise and delay once they started down the U.N. road -- words, not action.

"I think the speech at the U.N. ought to be about Iraq," Cheney said, but the United Nations ought to be made the issue. It should be challenged and criticized. "Go tell them it's not about us. It's about you. You are not important." The United Nations was not enforcing more than a decade of resolutions ordering Hussein to destroy his weapons of mass destruction and allow weapons inspectors inside Iraq. The United Nations was running the risk of becoming irrelevant and would be the loser if it did not do what was necessary.

Rice agreed. The United Nations had become too much like the post-World War I League of Nations -- a debating society with no teeth.

They all agreed that the president should not go to the United Nations to ask for a declaration of war. That was quickly off the table. They all agreed that a speech about Iraq made sense. But there was no agreement about what the president should say.

Two days later, Friday, Aug. 16, the NSC met, with the president participating by secure video from Crawford. The sole purpose of the meeting was for Powell to make his pitch about going to the United Nations to seek support or a coalition in some form. Unilateral war would be tough, close to impossible, Powell said. At least they ought to try to reach out and ask other countries to join them.

The president went around the table asking for comments, and there was general support for giving the United Nations a shot -- even from Cheney and Rumsfeld.

Fine, Bush finally said. He approved of the approach -- a speech to the United Nations about Iraq. And it couldn't be too shrill, he cautioned them, or set so high a standard that they wouldn't seem serious. He wanted to give the United Nations a chance.

Powell walked out feeling they had a deal, and he went off for a vacation in the Hamptons.

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