For Powell, A Long Path To a Victory
Pragmatism, Persistence Led to 15-0 U.N. Vote

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 10, 2002

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell won two victories on Friday. The most obvious was the unanimous United Nations Security Council approval of tough new weapons inspections in Iraq, a major international achievement for the Bush administration.

But perhaps the sweeter victory for Powell was his vindication as the leader of President Bush's foreign policy team.

After a string of losses to administration hard-liners on issues ranging from the Middle East and Iran to U.S. funding for international population programs, and increasingly public questions about whether he was headed toward resigning, Powell alone stood at President Bush's side in the White House Rose Garden just after the U.N. decision in New York, basking in presidential praise of his "leadership, his good work and his determination" in securing the 15-0 vote.

No one, including Powell, believes the intramural battles over Iraq are over. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's compliance with the resolution, if it happens at all, is expected to be grudging and open to interpretation at every turn. U.S. war plans remain on the table. Even inside the State Department, few believe that Hussein will comply with intrusive new inspections, and there is a feeling that the administration will inevitably confront a decision on war.

Word of new inspections has elicited no comment from the Pentagon. But in Powell's camp, at least, officials are now optimistic that if war does come, it will be an internationally supported effort rather than what many in the world worried would be the vengeful, unilateral strike of an obsessed superpower. And while the administration battle lines are still deeply drawn between the more aggressive views of how to deal with Iraq, represented by Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and those, led by Powell, who favor at least trying to achieve international consensus, the past three difficult months appear to have helped achieve a more orderly means of decision-making.

As far as Powell is concerned, the National Security Council structure designed to synthesize differences among Cabinet officials worked effectively. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, whose authority in dealing with such high-powered players has long been questioned in Washington, was seen across the board as a fair arbiter in presenting all views to Bush.

In the end, despite the bellicose rhetoric of some senior officials, a certain pragmatism won out.

"Nothing in this administration is calm sailing," said one senior diplomat in Washington. "It is deeply, ideologically split. But in a curious way, common sense has asserted itself thus far. . . . It's really quite extraordinary. Powell is still at it, Rice has held the center," and Bush, far from his original instincts, "has managed to rebuild the Security Council."

At each key decision point over the past three months -- whether to go to the United Nations in the first place; whether to seek a new resolution against Iraq or simply declare that its violation of past demands for disarmament justified immediate U.S. military action; whether to compromise with the views of other nations -- Bush was confronted with opposing views from his top advisers.

And as recounted in interviews with senior White House, State and Defense officials and foreign diplomats, it was a process whose outcome was in doubt every step of the way.

Iraq returned to the front burner in Washington over the summer after a hiatus during the Afghan war. Most of the talk focused on growing U.S. preparations for war, which provoked by late August a torrent of international calls for Bush not to "go it alone" in attacking Iraq.

In fact, Bush had already decided by that point that he would take his case to the United Nations, overruling administration skeptics who worried that diplomacy would enmesh, and possibly derail, the drive for a military takedown of Hussein's government. Looming large, senior administration officials say, was the case made by Powell during a private White House dinner on Aug. 5, alone with Bush and Rice.

It was not the most auspicious timing for Powell. Bush was about to depart for an extended vacation at his Texas ranch, and the secretary himself had returned only a day before from a grueling trip that took him to six Asian capitals in eight days. He had begun the trip angry; a New York Times report the morning of his departure suggested he was considering resignation, and an editorial said he would never be "a great secretary of state" if he couldn't stand his ground against "the sharks" circling him at the Pentagon and the vice president's office.

But despite his fatigue and preoccupations, "what Colin did very effectively in that dinner was to talk about the upside of making an aggressive approach at the U.N., and the downside of not doing it," a senior official said. The idea he promoted, said another, was to "get the U.N. involved, to broaden the coalition should military action be required and finally, if required, to have a lot of people on the other side to pick Iraq up and put it on its feet."

Bush had little personal use for the United Nations, which he considered a 20th-century organization out of tune with the new threats and demands of the 21st. But he had been hearing about coalition broadening in recent months from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the foreign leader to whom he felt closest and who shared his belief that Hussein had to be stopped.

So as he began his Texas working holiday, Bush decided he would go to the United Nations, his first strategic decision.

On Aug. 12, national security "principals," including Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld and Powell, met at the White House to figure out how to proceed. Talk quickly turned to a speech Bush was already scheduled to give at the U.N. General Assembly exactly one month later. The original White House idea was for a boilerplate address on democratic values, but the group decided that it should focus on Iraq and the Security Council's failure since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War to deal with Hussein's defiance of its disarmament resolutions. "It was actually the vice president who initially said, you know, these are after all the U.N.'s resolutions, not America's resolutions," recalled one participant, "and we started talking about . . . a challenge to the U.N. to live up to its heritage."

Rice departed for Texas four days later, while the others stayed behind and began wrestling with what would become the president's second key decision -- what his message to the United Nations would be.

Each camp began writing its own draft, with Cheney's staff and Rumsfeld deputy Paul Wolfowitz saying that Bush should simply inform the General Assembly that the United States already had international legal authority to launch a military attack, based on Iraq's "material breach" of a decade's worth of Security Council resolutions. Powell felt that it was worth giving inspections one more chance if it meant that the rest of the world would fight alongside the United States in the face of continued Iraqi defiance.

As Bush prepared for a Labor Day return to Washington, the principals compared their U.N. speech drafts. "We were down to tactical issues," a participant said. "Do you, in the speech, call for a resolution or not? Should it be the president who does that? Should you say 'inspection regime' or not? How detailed should he be about what an acceptable inspection regime should look like?"

On Sept. 4, Bush said publicly for the first time that he would not only address the United Nations on Iraq, but also would seek congressional authorization for a U.S. military attack. Key foreign leaders, nervous at talk of war preparations over the summer, began to weigh in. Russia said it saw no need for either U.S. or U.N. action. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned it would be "unwise to attack Iraq now." And French President Jacques Chirac said the Security Council not only needed a new resolution, but also needed two of them -- one to start new inspections, and a second one later, if necessary, to decide what to do in the event Iraq failed to comply.

Some senior administration officials now insist that there was early internal agreement that the United States would seek a new U.N. resolution on Iraq. Others said that some principals argued strongly that no resolution was needed, nor should one be sought, and when Bush's completed text was distributed just hours before his early morning departure for New York on Sept. 12 with no mention of a new resolution, they appeared to have prevailed.

Powell went into high gear, and the British were called in for reinforcement. Without a call for a new resolution, they argued, the speech would have no punch line, no indication of what the president expected the Security Council to do. Rice, increasingly seen by the "soft side" of the debate as a valuable honest broker and perhaps even an ally in her discussions with Bush, decided to call each of the involved senior advisers that night to say "Look, there really is a decision" to be made. "Do you have any view that you want to express to the president?"

Bush, of course, had the final say. When he stepped to the General Assembly lectern at 10:39 the next morning, he warned of U.N. "irrelevance." He said the threat from Iraq was dire and immediate, and that the United States would not hesitate to defend itself.

And then he formally resolved the difference among his advisers, announcing, "We will work with the U.N. Security Council for the necessary resolutions" to make one more try at securing Iraqi disarmament without war.

A high-level interagency group, assigned to begin drafting just such a resolution, quickly agreed on so-called "red lines" for inclusion: It had to declare Iraq already in "material breach" of previous U.N. demands and outline harsh new inspection guidelines that would brook no deception. Most important, it had to promise "serious consequences" for defiance -- code words for war.

Again, each side in the internal debate independently provided passages it insisted must be included. Guidelines from the Pentagon effectively ordered the inclusion of U.S. officials and forces as part of the inspection teams on the ground. The hard-liners insisted that the final, "action" paragraph give advance approval for U.N. members to use "all necessary means" to counter Iraqi failure to cooperate -- language they knew would be interpreted as a trigger for U.S. invasion at will.

Powell and the British argued to no avail that the resolution draft was "totally unsellable in New York," one participant said. The other three permanent members of the council with veto power -- France, Russia and China -- all declared it dead on arrival. But the forces allied with Powell also believed that what one diplomat called "this hideous, extreme resolution" might ultimately prove useful in persuading the council to move toward a less draconian compromise that still would be more powerful than the initial inclinations of most members. A frightened United Nations, they felt, was not a totally bad thing at this stage.

"We always knew . . . 'all necessary means' wasn't going to make it," one senior official said. "There were a few things that were in the 'let's see how people react' category, and we were always going to deal with those."

Senior Defense Department officials insisted they had a guarantee of presidential support for a range of "nonnegotiable" items in the first resolution draft, even as others at the State Department said Powell was acting with complete assurance of Bush's backing. It was here, White House, State and diplomatic officials said, that the British played a key role. Powell was speaking to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw daily, often several times a day, even as Rice was conferring with her counterpart, David Manning, in Blair's front office, and Blair was repeating to Bush at every opportunity what had become a mantra: that as long as the basic "red lines" were included, having an agreed resolution was more important than insisting on every word. U.S. diplomats began chipping away at the most unacceptable wording, sometimes passing new versions to the French even before they had been seen by others in Washington.

Bush, in this third key decision, agreed to a substantially revised draft that was circulated in New York on Oct. 23. "All necessary means" was gone, and agreement to a "second stage" of council consideration in the event of Iraqi violations, if not a guaranteed second resolution, was included. During a week of consultations between Powell and French Foreign Secretary Dominique de Villepin, it was fine-tuned to within a word or two of French approval.

Throughout the deliberations, Powell had taken care to make sure Bush had enough details to see things his way, including the technicalities of how new inspections would work. A crucial moment in the Washington endgame, several participants in the process agreed, came 10 days ago when Powell invited chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix and Mohamed el Baradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency -- both deeply disdained at the Pentagon as weaklings incapable of standing up to Hussein -- to meet with Bush, Cheney, Rice and Wolfowitz.

"It was very valuable, because you could read very easily in both the body language and what they said that these were completely serious people," said one participant in the meetings. "They had both been through a lot with the Iraqis and a number of other difficult regimes, and they had no desire to be deceived by the Iraqis."

The meetings helped convince Bush that Blix wanted the same tough inspections that he did, and that a pared-down version of the original resolution guidelines would still guarantee intrusive, unyielding inspections. "They acquitted themselves really well," a senior official in Powell's camp said of Blix and el Baradei. Carping stopped at the Pentagon.

Powell launched into an intense, nonstop week of pressure and cajoling on the telephone with London, Paris and Moscow, plus additional talks with his counterparts among the 10 elected members of the council. So consuming were the negotiations that Powell later joked he was still on his cell phone just minutes before his daughter's wedding on Saturday night, switching it off only as he started to walk her up the aisle.

On Thursday, following several final word changes, Bush clinched a final deal over the telephone with Chirac. A conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin was less conclusive, but Putin instructed Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to keep talking to Powell. Ivanov called an hour before the council vote, at 9 a.m. Friday, to confirm Russia's yes.

The longest holdout was Syria, and an abstention, rather than a no, was the most optimistic prediction. In a last stab Thursday night, Powell had sent a personal message to the Syrian foreign minister, saying that Damascus would be standing alone at the Council, and asked the U.S. ambassador to deliver it verbally, in person. Straw made a call to the Syrian capital, and so did Annan.

Friday morning, as the United States's U.N. ambassador, John Negroponte, was leaving his office across the street from U.N. headquarters for the council vote, he received a call from the Syrians saying they, too, would vote yes. Negroponte used his cell phone to call Powell as he was walking down the U.N. hallway toward the council chamber.

Powell called Rice, and Rice called Bush just as 15 hands were going up around the table, signaling unanimous support for the U.S. resolution.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company