'Let Me Think About Powell'
When I specifically asked about Powell's contributions during an interview on Aug. 20, four days later, the president offered a tepid response. "Powell is a diplomat," Bush responded. "And you've got to have a diplomat. I kind of picture myself as a pretty good diplomat, but nobody else does. You know, particularly, I wouldn't call me a diplomat. But, nevertheless, he is a diplomatic person who has got war experience."
Did Powell want private meetings? I asked.
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___ About This Series ___
"Bush at War" is based on notes taken during more than 50 National Security Council and other meetings. Many direct quotations of President Bush and the war cabinet members come from these notes. Other personal notes, memos, calendars, written internal chronologies, transcripts and other documents were also the basis for direct quotations and other parts of this story.
More than 100 people involved in the decision making, including President Bush, were interviewed. Thoughts, conclusions and feelings attributed to the participants come either from the people themselves, a colleague with direct knowledge of them or the written record.
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___ Related Series ___
Ten Days in September. This 8-part report from Bob Woodward and Dan Balz reconstructed the atmosphere inside the White House during the days immediately after Sept. 11.
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"He doesn't pick up the phone and say, 'I need to come and see you,' " Bush said. He confirmed that he did have private meetings with Powell that Rice also attended. "Let me think about Powell. I got one. He was very good with [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf. He single-handedly got Musharraf on board. He was very good about that. He saw the notion of the need to put a coalition together" for the war in Afghanistan.
Vacationing in Long Island, Powell picked up the New York Times on Aug. 27 and was astonished by what he read. "Cheney Says Peril of a Nuclear Iraq Justifies Attack," said the headline of the lead story. The vice president had given a hard-line speech the day before, declaring that weapons inspections were basically futile. "A return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of his compliance with U.N. resolutions," Cheney had said. "On the contrary, there is a great danger that it would provide false comfort that Saddam was somehow 'back in his box.' "
In the hands of a "murderous dictator," Cheney said, weapons of mass destruction are "as grave a threat as can be imagined. The risks of inaction are far greater than the risk of action." Cheney's speech was widely interpreted as administration policy. The tone was harsh and unforgiving. It mentioned consultations with allies but did not invite other countries to join a coalition.
To Powell, it seemed like a preemptive attack on what he thought had been agreed to 10 days earlier -- to give the United Nations a chance. In addition, the swipe at weapons inspections was contrary to Bush's yearlong assertions that the next step should be to let the weapons inspectors back into Iraq. That was what everyone -- the United Nations and the United States -- had been fighting with Hussein about since 1998, when he had kicked the inspectors out.
The day after Cheney's speech, Rumsfeld met with 3,000 Marines at Camp Pendleton in California. "I don't know how many countries will participate in the event the president does decide that the risks of not acting are greater than the risks of acting," Rumsfeld said. Powell could decode this: Cheney had asserted that the risks were in not acting, and Rumsfeld had said he didn't know how many countries would join if the president agreed with Cheney. Rumsfeld also said that doing the right thing "at the onset may seem lonesome" -- a new term for acting alone, in other words, unilateralism.
To make matters worse, the BBC began releasing excerpts of an earlier interview that Powell had done in which he had said it would be "useful" to restart the weapons inspections. "The president has been clear that he believes weapons inspectors should return," Powell had said. "Iraq has been in violation of many U.N. resolutions for most of the last 11 or so years. And so, as a first step, let's see what the inspectors find. Send them back in."
News stories appeared saying that Powell contradicted Cheney, or appeared to do so. Suddenly, Powell realized that the public impression of the administration's policy toward inspectors in Iraq was the opposite of what he knew it to be. Some editorial writers accused Powell of being disloyal. He counted seven editorials calling for his resignation or implying he should quit. From his perspective all hell was breaking loose. How could I be disloyal, he wondered, when I'm giving the president's stated position?
When Powell returned from his vacation, he asked for another private meeting with the president. Rice joined them over lunch on Sept. 2, Labor Day, as Powell reviewed the confusion of August. Was it not the president's position that the weapons inspectors should go back into Iraq?
Bush said it was, though he was skeptical that it would work. He reaffirmed that he was committed to going to the United Nations to ask for support on Iraq. In a practical sense that meant asking for a new resolution. Powell was satisfied as he left for South Africa to attend a conference.
By Friday evening, Sept. 6, Powell was back, and he joined the principals at Camp David without the president.
Cheney argued that to ask for a new resolution would put them back in the soup of the United Nations process -- hopeless, endless and irresolute. All the president should say is that Hussein is bad, has willfully violated, ignored and stomped on the U.N. resolutions of the past, and the United States reserves its right to act unilaterally.
But that isn't asking for U.N. support, Powell replied. The United Nations would not just roll over, declare Hussein evil, and authorize the United States to strike militarily. The United Nations would not buy that. The idea was not saleable, Powell said. The president had already decided to give the United Nations a chance, and the only way to do that was to ask for a resolution.
Cheney was beyond hell-bent for action against Hussein. It was as if nothing else existed.
Powell attempted to summarize the consequences of unilateral action. He would have to close American embassies around the world if they went alone.
That was not the issue, Cheney said. Hussein and the blatant threat were the issue.
Maybe it would not turn out as the vice president thought, Powell said. War could trigger all kinds of unanticipated and unintended consequences.
Not the issue, Cheney said.
The conversation exploded into a tough debate, dancing on the edge of civility but not departing from the formal propriety that Cheney and Powell generally showed each other.
The next morning the principals had an NSC meeting with the president. They did a rerun of the arguments, and Bush seemed comfortable asking the United Nations for a resolution.
But during the speech-drafting process, Cheney and Rumsfeld continued to press. Asking for a new resolution would snag them in a morass of U.N. debate and hesitation, they said, opening the door for Hussein to negotiate with the United Nations. He would say the words of offering to comply but then, as always, stiff everyone.
So the request for a resolution came out of the speech. Meetings on the drafting continued for days. The speech assailed the United Nations for not enforcing the weapons inspections in Iraq, specifically for the four years since Hussein had kicked them out.
"You can't say all of this," Powell argued, "without asking them to do something. There's no action in this speech.