Where have you gone, Colin Powell? Those words appeared on the cover of a leading weekly magazine the week before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They summed up what many wondered about the secretary of state as he seemed to be losing internal Bush administration debates on everything from missile defense to engagement with North Korea to Mideast peace negotiations to climate change. The talk quieted for a time after Sept. 11 but then resumed when the president again seemed to side with administration hard-liners and against Powell in suggesting that the United States would soon overthrow Saddam Hussein, whether the rest of the world agreed or not.
Well, Powell appears to be back. With the U.N. Security Council's agreement on an Iraq resolution, Colin Powell has carried the day on what may be the most important national security debate of the Bush presidency. The resolution would preserve American freedom of action to go to war if absolutely necessary, while also creating a strong, united international front.
For a secretary of state concerned with America's diplomatic place in the world, for a former soldier who would rather not see his military have to fight a messy war unless absolutely necessary, and for a hawk who nonetheless wants American security protected and Iraq disarmed, no outcome could be better.
It began to be apparent that Powell was winning the internal administration debate when President Bush gave his Sept. 12 speech to the United Nations. The chief thrust of that speech was to push for a final, U.N.-sponsored ultimatum demanding that Hussein accept rigorous inspections and comply with disarmament demands -- or else. To be sure, Powell had help from the elder President Bush, Tony Blair and others in making his case against those who favored prompt unilateral war to unseat Hussein. But he appears to have been the only chief member of the administration pushing for a strategy that could possibly avert war and avoid America's international isolation.
Giving inspections one last try was exactly the outcome Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld feared most. They had spent the summer declaring Hussein undeterrable and a mortal danger to the United States. If inspections resumed, they thought, the United States would likely get one of two outcomes: Either Hussein would appear to comply with international demands, inspectors would find no illicit weapons or technologies, and pressure would mount to lift sanctions on an unrepentant dictator who still possessed his worst arms. Or Hussein would gradually start thwarting inspectors, causing diplomatic fissures between the United States and its allies while holding onto his cherished armaments. Neither official seemed to countenance the possibility that inspections could be toughened in the ways the Bush administration has promoted since the Sept. 12 speech.
Administration hard-liners surely did not like the decision to give inspections a final try, but at least they could take heart in all the other demands Bush placed on Hussein in his speech -- that Kuwaiti prisoners be returned, Iraqi human rights practices be improved and so on. Surely Hussein would fail to comply, thereby providing ample grounds for war one way or another.
If that was their hope, it quickly faded. Powell was soon telling Congress that while much about Hussein's regime was reprehensible, only his weapons of mass destruction could justify a U.S. invasion. Intelligence agencies, backed up by the State Department, were also challenging continued assertions by Rumsfeld about strong links between Hussein and al Qaeda.
Then the president declared, in a speech Oct. 7, that he still hoped to avoid war, and he uttered his important phrase, "Saddam Hussein must disarm himself -- or, for the sake of peace, we will lead a coalition to disarm him." The first part of the sentence made clear that war was neither imminent nor inevitable. Bush made it clear he was focused on the weapons issue and that alone as a justification for war.
But how do we know that these are not all tactics, designed to provide multilateral camouflage for an administration plan for a largely unilateral war? That seems highly improbable, despite the continued flow of military supplies to the Persian Gulf.
Congress, close allies such as Britain and the Arab states, and the American people have supported a tough policy toward Iraq based principally on concern about weapons of mass destruction. Bush would lose much of their support if he went to war now for other reasons. And once they begin, successful inspections will develop a momentum of their own -- especially if they can provide good assurances that Iraq's nuclear weapons program, the hardest to hide from inspectors, has been arrested.
Of course, Hussein may still miscalculate, and war may still occur. But there is also now a real possibility that the president, together with his secretary of state, will achieve a peaceful outcome in Iraq that rewrites the books on coercive diplomacy -- as well as the early histories about who really calls the shots in this administration.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.