11 September 2001>News Stories>The World According to Colin Powell

The World According to Colin Powell
Douglas Jehl . NYTimes . 25 November

The White House, Sept. 20: President Bush and Secretary of State Powell confer in the Blue Oval Room.

The night of Oct. 15 found Colin Powell inside the heavily fortified residence of the American ambassador in Islamabad, dining with his improbable new best friend, the president of Pakistan. Just a few months earlier, when the Bush administration was beginning to compose its tableau of friends and foes, a Powell deputy was sent to court India, a democracy and possible counterweight to China, as America's darling in South Asia. Pakistan was passed over as a terrorist-cradling rogue nation. But war changes everything, and Gen. Pervez Musharraf was now our partner against the terrorists in neighboring Afghanistan. This was Powell's first face-to-face meeting with the Pakistani strongman, and he was impressed with what he found. Like Powell himself, Musharraf was a pragmatic military man, brimming with self-assurance, equally at ease talking tactical soldiery or political strategy, a man given to thinking three or four steps ahead.

Powell was in Islamabad to reassure the Pakistanis that the United States would not, as it had in the past, abandon Pakistan once the war was over and to proffer some tangible rewards, including an end to sanctions imposed to punish Pakistan's nuclear testing and help in rescheduling a staggering national debt. This was a gamble for Musharraf, enlisting with America against a viral Islamic hatred incubated, among other places, in Pakistan. The streets were simmering with angry protests. As a precaution against a stray shoulder-fired missile, Powell had ended his 17-hour flight with a lights-out, banking dive into the Islamabad airport. And for security reasons, the dinner was not listed on the schedule handed out to his traveling press entourage.

The Secret Service bodyguards were not the only ones feeling twitchy about the visit. Twice, as the two business-suited generals huddled over their meal, cellphones trilled -- first in the pocket of the Pakistani head of intelligence, then in that of the C.I.A. station chief -- with news that India was firing artillery in the disputed border province of Kashmir. Now India was feeling jilted. ''It's a way of saying, 'What about us?''' said one member of the Islamabad dinner party.

Such is the volatile, expedient new world of American foreign policy in which Colin Powell presides. And for now at least, he does preside, his comforting charisma, his ally-charming skills and his experience of war all placed at a premium by the terror attacks of Sept. 11.

Shanghai, Oct. 21: Bush (flanked by Rice and Powell) and Putin (opposite Bush) met during the economic summit to discuss the A.B.M. treaty.

When I interviewed Powell in a more innocent time, four days before the hijack kamikazes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I asked him to describe his vision of the world. (Powell has compiled a list of maxims he likes. No. 11 is ''Have a vision.'') The answer he gave was an articulate and utterly uncontroversial discourse on an America that would lead by the power of its example -- a riff that paid effusive homage to Ronald Reagan's ''shining city on a hill.'' Except for a somewhat heavier foot on the pedal of free markets than you might have heard from a Democratic administration, it was uplifting, nonpartisan boilerplate and seemed to confirm what just about everyone who has worked with Powell says about him, that he is a problem solver, not a visionary.

Six weeks later, when we talked over Diet Cokes on his plane home from his swing through southern Asia, the world had delivered up a whopper of a problem, and he was in his element. Wars, even this ''war,'' relieve you of the quest for a great organizing principle and direct your attention to the practical business of strategy and tactics. And so Powell had been working the world, mustering a coalition of old friends, fair-weather friends and former denizens of the Bush doghouse, amassing real and moral support for a campaign against terror. This time when I asked Powell for the big picture, the issue that demanded his most careful attention in the rearranged world, he plunged into a discussion of the uncertain stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan, a country about as far downhill from Reagan's shining city as you can get.

The campaign against terror has created the kind of crisis-management world in which Powell thrives. Before Sept. 11, Powell was the lonely hope of European allies, Congressional centrists, global business and most of the media commentariat to the left of The Weekly Standard, who viewed him as the adult in a mosh pit of moralists and America-firsters. ''In the land of the blind, he's the one-eyed king,'' said a prominent Democrat shortly before the terror attacks. Since the dawn of a common international cause, though, the Bush administration has been sounding more like Colin Powell than like anyone else. The terrorists have, for now, disarmed the lone-superpower ideologues within the Republican Party and created a sense of global common purpose in which trust among competitive nations seems a little more plausible. The way Powell puts it is that the attack on America ''hit the reset button'' on foreign policy. Tense American relationships with Russia and China and even in the intractable Middle East, he says, now seem more amenable to breakthroughs. He contends that America has not only moved, at long last, beyond the cold war but has also vaulted past the ''post-cold-war period,'' that confusing interim search for purpose in a world without a center of gravity.

With the rout of the Taliban from Kabul and other cities and, in the same week, halting steps toward a new strategic bargain with Russia, the new Powell doctrine of diplomatic opportunity seems all the more plausible. Whether it survives the frustrations of imposing stability in Afghanistan -- which could mean, among other things, winning a guerrilla war -- or the ultimate test of our allies' competing self-interests remains to be seen. You can find many within the administration and outside it who believe that the Powell view is naive or amoral in a dangerous world. But one man who appears to share Powell's fresh sense of opportunity, who talks about the world with the same tone of bright promise, is President Bush.

On Sept. 11, Powell was sitting down to breakfast in Lima with Alejandro Toledo, the president of Peru, when an aide handed him a note saying that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. ''Oh, my God,'' he said to his host. ''Something terrible has happened.'' It would be 10 hours before he could get through to President Bush, who was being ferried around the country by a nervous Secret Service.

Until that point, the conventional wisdom about Powell was reflected in an end-of-summer Time magazine cover that asked, ''Where Have You Gone, Colin Powell?'' The new secretary of state had endured a series of minor humiliations -- over North Korea, over the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, over the American peacekeeping commitment in the Balkans. Moreover, he seemed invisible, which in Washington is taken to mean impotent. ''We've had our little hiccups,'' he said a couple of days after that issue of Time appeared.

Even by then, however, Powell's influence had been steadily growing. He had negotiated a relatively unacrimonious end to the administration's first international crisis, the collision of an EP-3 spy plane with a Chinese fighter, opening the way for a less prickly relationship with China, which President Bush has now embraced. He had reassured the Europeans that despite the Bush camp's belittling talk of nation-building in Bosnia and Kosovo, the Americans who went in with the allies would not leave without them. Bush had, almost impetuously, abandoned his campaign suspicion of Russia. And despite the administration's scorn for Bill Clinton's personal diplomacy in the Middle East, the president had agreed in a National Security Council meeting, the conclusions of which were later artfully leaked, to reaffirm American support for Palestinian statehood and authorize a more active American role in the region. In all of this, the president was following the instincts of his secretary of state.

By Friday, Sept. 14, when Powell helicoptered to Camp David for dinner with Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, crucial preparations for war were already under way. Powell's most trusted deputy, Richard Armitage, had already called in the Pakistani intelligence chief to lay the foundations of a military squeeze on Afghanistan. Armitage, a Vietnam vet with a bodybuilder's imposing bulk, was once decorated by the government of Pakistan for helping arm Afghan rebels in their insurgency against Soviet control. Now he delivered a seven-point, with-us-or-against-us ultimatum calling on the Pakistanis to close their border with Afghanistan, open their intelligence files and provide access for American forces. The Pakistani diplomat left and returned the next day with Musharraf's unqualified concurrence, and Powell cinched it in a phone call to the Pakistani leader. The bombing was still three weeks away, but the group that gathered at Camp David quickly came to the conclusion that the American response would be military and that it would be careful and methodical.

''There is always the pressure to go back and smack somebody right away,'' Powell, who likes to quote Thucydides on the military virtue of restraint, told me the following week. But, Powell went on to say, the question was ''who that somebody was, one, and how to do it so that you were hitting that someone or some group and not just hitting for the sake of hitting.''

Over dinner, the foursome kept the conversation light, but the next morning they were joined by the president, George Tenet, the C.I.A. director, and an array of deputies in a Camp David conference room. For four hours they turned over the options, the risks, how to make the declared war more than a figure of speech. They ran through the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, the genesis of the Taliban, the question of how far to trust Pakistan. They talked about whether the initial phase of the war should extend beyond Al Qaeda to target terrorist groups with popular backing in the Middle East, like Hamas and Hezbollah, and whether it should encompass sponsoring states -- Syria, Iran and especially Iraq.

''What was kicked around at Camp David was, You have a lot of other countries in the world that support terrorism,'' said one participant. ''What are we going to do about them? Obviously there's Al Qaeda and there's Afghanistan, but we don't want to send a message that there's good terrorism and bad terrorism. You know, you can't be against Al Qaeda and then support Hezbollah.''

Powell pointed out that there was no evidence connecting Iraq to the Sept. 11 attacks. Others said that that was irrelevant, that the administration came to power promising to do more to bring about an end to Saddam Hussein. Powell said the coalition would not hold if the United States targeted Iraq, and without the coalition there could be no shutting off of terrorist finances, no intelligence sharing, no international arrests.

After a lunch break, when Bush asked the cabinet principals to sum up their views of the discussion, there was general agreement that Afghanistan and Al Qaeda would be plenty for the first stage. The next day, back at the White House, the president called in Rice and said that he had made up his mind. Iraq was left for the future.

''Iraq will be sitting there after this campaign is well along,'' Powell told me a few days later. ''Iraq isn't going anywhere. It's in a fairly weakened state. It's doing some things we don't like. We'll continue to contain it. But there really was no need at this point, unless there was really quite a smoking gun, to put Iraq at the top of the list.

''With respect to what is sometimes characterized as taking out Saddam,'' he added, ''I never saw a plan that was going to take him out. It was just some ideas coming from various quarters about, Let's go bomb.'' He said raining bombs on Iraq would be no more effective now than it was when President Clinton did it in December 1998. ''What was the result of the bombing? He's still there, except you put him back on Page 1. 'Here I am!' And you've spent a billion dollars. So, we'll take that in stride, in sequence. He'll be there, unfortunately, a week, a month, two months from now.''

For Powell's Republican critics inside and outside the administration, Iraq remains the nagging test of whether this war should or will be fought on his terms, and it is a battle postponed rather than resolved. When and if President Bush becomes convinced that he should attack Iraq, Powell will hew loyally to the policy, but so far he doesn't see the point.

On the plane back from Asia last month, I asked if he had seen anything to change his mind about targeting Iraq. He said he had not.

I asked about the mission that James Woolsey, the former director of central intelligence, had recently undertaken to gather evidence of an Iraqi role in the twin towers attack. Powell was clearly irritated. Woolsey ''wasn't working for me,'' he said. ''All I know is what I read in the newspapers. And I assume he's doing something for the Pentagon.''

Powell's most vociferous critics trace his reluctance to go after Iraq now to his role in the gulf war, when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is, they contend, a continuation of an earlier mistake that Powell refuses to admit.

It is true that the advice Powell gave the first President Bush after Iraq invaded Kuwait was consistently cautious. As documented by Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor in their meticulous account of the war, ''The Generals' War: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf,'' Powell opposed using ship movements to send Saddam a signal of American resolve, a reluctance some say emboldened the Iraqi leader to move against Kuwait. (The man who advocated moving ships toward the Persian Gulf to deter an invasion was Paul Wolfowitz, then under secretary of defense.) Powell advocated a longer period of economic and political sanctions before sending troops. He at first wanted the focus to be on defending Saudi Arabia rather than on liberating Kuwait. Based on what proved to be overgenerous Pentagon estimates of Iraqi strength, he insisted that the war could be undertaken only with half a million troops. And in the end, after the Iraqi Army had fled home, he recommended ending the war after five days, although (as intelligence would later show) half of Saddam's lethal Republican Guard had escaped with its tanks back into Iraq, where they would help crush Shiite and Kurdish uprisings and assure Saddam's hold on power. Powell feared that bombarding the retreating Iraqis along the so-called Highway of Death would make America seem brutal, and President Bush agreed.

This record persuades conservatives that Powell was too fainthearted. William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, wrote in late September in The Washington Post that the first President Bush went to war against Iraq over the resistance of Powell, and he challenged the current president to do likewise.

I put this complaint to former President Bush, who sent back a furious written reply.

''Kristol said Powell opposed the use of force,'' he wrote. ''That is a vicious slander, totally untrue. I valued Colin's opinion that when force was needed we'd use sufficient force to keep our casualties to a bare minimum. . . . That Colin did not want to use force is a grossly unfair, insupportable lie.''

As for the contention that Powell persuaded the president to stop short of neutering Saddam Hussein, the former president wrote: ''Our mission was to end the aggression and kick Saddam out of Kuwait. My commanders told me, 'Mission accomplished.' I ended the fighting. For the reasons I have often stated, I have no regrets that we avoided changing the mission. I admit that based upon the opinion of all our coalition partners I did feel Saddam would flee Iraq or be killed given the magnitude of his defeat. All of us underestimated Saddam's cruelty and brutality to his own people, which keeps him in office.''

Powell himself concedes a little bit of ground. ''You can reasonably argue that we should have gone for another day or two,'' he told me. ''We would have destroyed more tanks, we would have killed more people, we would have lost more lives, there would have been more destruction along the Highway of Death. But we weren't going to Baghdad. And so when you read things, as I read in an article not too long ago, that Powell insisted on keeping Saddam Hussein in place in Baghdad, that gets my dander up. It's like I'm some Rasputin figure that was all alone causing all this to happen or not to happen.''

Administration officials will tell you that the philosophical differences between Powell and his colleagues are exaggerated. One White House official scoffed at what he called the MTV ''Celebrity Death Match'' version of policy-making that comes across in news accounts. Rice, whose job is to protect against internecine conflict, insists, ''It's actually a very collegial national security team, and it's rare that we even go to the president with some split decisions.'' It is true that since Sept. 11, differences have been muted, and with the National Security Council meeting often and the cabinet principals gathering every evening, Bush's advisers seem to have grown quite comfortable with one another.

But while the division has been bridged for now, relegated to the sniping of deputies and surrogates in the press, it is a real fault line that runs through the administration, and it could open again.

On one side is a neoconservative school that flowered in President Reagan's first term, before he fell in love with arms control. Those in this group tend to see the world in darker tones. They are suspicious of treaties and alliances that constrain American power and generally unsentimental about humanitarian interventions where explicit American interests are not at stake. But they harbor a pronounced sense of America's moral obligations, reflected most powerfully in a devotion to beleaguered democracies like Israel and Taiwan (and for some of them during previous administrations, Bosnia). This group includes Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz -- who half-joked around the time he accepted the job that the reason he enlisted in the new administration was to keep an eye on Powell -- and a number of outside advisers they have assembled at the Pentagon. The group includes Vice President Cheney, who has been an important sponsor of Powell but who as defense secretary during the gulf war sometimes jousted with Powell over what he saw as the general's foot-dragging. Rice, while she has settled rather successfully into the national security adviser role of honest policy broker, is at heart more impatient with make-nice diplomacy than Powell.

The second group reflects a more traditional Republican foreign policy of the kind that prevailed under the first President Bush -- comfortable with alliances, treaties and international institutions, less assertive in the promotion of American values abroad, more Realpolitik in its judgments, more ''sandpapered'' in its language, as one aide put it. Powell is the standard-bearer for this camp, which includes most of the upper ranks of the State Department and some sympathizers in the White House, along with an outside chorus that notably includes the president's father.

Since Sept. 11, any frictions have tended to occur at the margins of policy, and they have been played out through deputies putting their spin into briefing papers and whispering to sympathizers in the press. Powell says that the cabinet is ''in full accord'' on the conduct of the antiterror campaign. He is particularly sensitive about any suggestion that he imposes himself in the Pentagon's business; aides say that he confines his advice to occasions when the president or vice president ask for it. Powell slapped down as ''absolute nonsense'' reports by Rumsfeld sympathizers in the press that he had dictated a go-slow approach to the early bombing in Afghanistan. ''I know enough not to do something I used to do for a living when there's somebody else better qualified than me to now do it,'' he told me last week.

Powell himself has not spent all those years in the executive branch without becoming adept at close bureaucratic combat. His in-fighting style is patient and discreet. He gives his interviews on the record, so he cannot be accused of badmouthing rivals, except implicitly. (Asked about reports of some jostling with Rice for influence, Powell firmly denied it, then added that he regarded the national security adviser ''like a daughter,'' which was probably not meant to sound condescending but left no doubt about who was the alpha dog.) Powell has plenty of loyalists in the government and Congress who are willing to get more personal. A recent flurry of press reports that characterized Wolfowitz, the Pentagon deputy, as a right-wing zealot -- shrewdly not aiming at Rumsfeld himself -- was helped along by Powell supporters in the administration and on Capitol Hill.

Powell is careful not to undercut a presidential decision, but he is willing to put forward spin on a policy before the president has formally staked a position. When the first Bush administration was wrestling with the question of whether to intervene in Bosnia, Powell gave an impassioned interview to this newspaper on the folly of intervention, which those who favored air strikes viewed as bordering on insubordination. Last month in Shanghai, he gave a speech to business leaders that was, by several degrees, more optimistic about the benign direction of China's leadership than President Bush has been.

Those who have worked with him say that Powell is usually the best-prepared person in any meeting and has anticipated the arguments several steps out. He can draw on experience of every war since Vietnam. There are seven seats on the National Security Council, including the president and vice president; Powell has held three of them.

''He's a smart linear thinker, with iron self-control, tremendous pride and self-confidence, great leadership skills, great presentational skills, limited analytical skills and a commanding presence,'' said a diplomat who has sparred with Powell. ''It's an amazing package.''

Plus, there is the aura. The decorated warrior. The intimate of, now, four presidents. The man many felt could become the first African-American president. His story of accomplishment is the subject of more than 20 books, including his own best-selling memoir. None of this is likely to awe men of comparable experience, like Cheney and Rumsfeld, but it cannot fail to impress a president with none of those credentials.

At some level, generally obscured by Powell's competence and charm, the fact that he is black contributes something to the chemistry. There is the crude fact that a popular black war hero is politically invincible in a Republican administration that won without a majority. And there is a more subtle sense that his achievements make white Americans feel a little better about themselves, and a bit more open to Powell.

Those who work with him tend to shy away from the subject of his race, but Powell has thought about it a good deal. He has said that his descent from blacks of the West Indies, where slavery ended earlier than in the United States and where the mixing of African and European bloodlines was more common, gave his people a greater self-assurance than descendants of American slaves. That was reinforced in the comparatively meritocratic world of the Army. He is light-skinned, with the ethnically neutral voice of a television anchor and an inviting face, which the writer Henry Louis Gates Jr. described as having ''a sort of yearbook openness.'' This makes him an easy man to be around. As he told Gates in a remarkably candid series of interviews for The New Yorker: ''One, I don't shove it in their face, you know? I don't bring any stereotypes or threatening visage to their presence. Some black people do. Two, I can overcome any stereotypes or reservations they have, because I perform well. Third thing is, I ain't that black.''

Rice, who as a black woman may know even more than Powell about the sting of stereotypes, said that the one time ''others tried to energize'' the issue of race against Powell was when the administration chose to spurn the United Nations conference on racism in South Africa. Articles appeared speculating that Powell, who has a fascination with Africa, wanted to go. In fact, Rice said, the president left the decision to Powell, who saw the conference dissolving into an Israel-bashing session and chose not to attend. Both Powell and Rice were said to be disturbed by the significance race took on in the matter.

''Still got your voice, Andrea?''

A dozen reporters dragged themselves onto the State Department plane home from Shanghai to find Powell presiding over the press seats, tending his entourage. Andrea Koppel, the ailing CNN correspondent, nodded that she was still fit to file.

''That's too bad,'' Powell said, smiling, and ducked forward into his cabin. He would be back after a few hours' sleep, changed into his traveling uniform of crisp white T-shirt and blue-and-green windbreaker, for a stand-up briefing that would range from the details of China's nuclear deterrent to developments in Israel, managing the seasoned briefer's trick of breaking no news while not sounding canned.

For a man who decided, after a long and public introspection in 1995, that he did not have the stomach for campaign politics, Powell is nimble at the parts of his job that resemble campaign politics -- the flattering wisecrack, the command of detail, the much-repeated answer that sounds fresh and the ability to be alert when everyone else is fall-down tired.

All of this has served him during the accelerated diplomacy of assembling a war coalition, which is a little like playing chess on 20 boards at once against challengers with wildly differing opening gambits. There are the Europeans, who came to the antiterror campaign as volunteers and require consulting but no persuading. One thing the Europeans want from Powell, though, is assurance that the United States is doing what it can to defuse the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Powell calls regularly with reports on his conversations with Prime Minister Sharon, Foreign Minister Peres and Yasir Arafat. He does the same with Saudi Arabia, one of the few countries where Powell's contacts from the gulf war are still in power. Japan is another story. The Japanese are being courted to help in the reconstruction of Afghanistan after the war, but they also want to be talked to about the military aspects because they see themselves emerging as more than just a one-dimensional economic power. Powell obliges.

He has met the Russian foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, 13 times and speaks with him routinely to discuss counterterrorism and the full menu of issues. More delicately, using his policy-planning deputy, Richard N. Haass, and working through multilateral committees, Powell has tried to draw Iran into the antiterrorism effort. The Iranians have been helpful in the distribution of food to refugees and have agreed to provide search-and-rescue help if American war planes run into serious trouble in Afghanistan. The United States wants them to use their influence to help assemble a broad alternative government in Afghanistan.

To support him in all of this, Powell has brought back to life a neglected and demoralized instrument: the State Department. Under previous administrations, the State Department has watched its power be siphoned off to political operatives in the White House and places like the Treasury Department, its network of trained diplomats eroded, its facilities starved and mismanaged. From Powell's first day at the State Department, his reliance on the career Foreign Service has been a rejuvenating tonic to an institution that had felt marginalized. Powell has filled many of his key assistant-secretary jobs, the people who oversee the six regions of the globe, with career Foreign Service officers, to whom he has delegated the kind of authority a general gives to his division commanders. Whether by design or not (Powell's people insist not), this has had the additional effect of assuring that those jobs would not go to White House political appointees whose views were to the right of his own.

The business of management rarely engages secretaries of state, but it is an obsession in the modern American military -- developing and motivating talent, delegating authority while holding subordinates to account, dispensing praise and trust in exchange for loyalty and hard work, tending to morale. One retired general who worked closely with Powell recalled his arrival as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He inherited a ''Joint Staff'' of two-star and three-star generals assigned by -- and loyal to -- the individual services. They reported to him through a tightknit outfit called the Chairman's Staff Group, which filtered and homogenized the conflicting advice of Air Force and Army. His first day on the job, Powell called in the Staff Group and said: ''Here's the drill: You're out of it.'' Thereafter, he took his information directly from the bright officers assigned by the services, bolstering their loyalty to him and assuring a flow of unvarnished information.

State Department insiders say that Powell operates much the same way with dissenters inside his department. A notable example is John Bolton, the under secretary of state for arms control and international security, who is an ardent hawk whose appointment Cheney lobbied for. Rather than isolate Bolton, whose views on Russia and arms treaties are considerably to the right of his own, Powell uses the under secretary to test and sharpen his own thinking.

''Washington players can be divided into those who know how to work the institution and those who don't,'' said the retired general. ''Madeleine Albright didn't. Rumsfeld, in his first months, didn't. Powell plays the institution like a damn orchestra.''

The restoration of the State Department has, of course, only elevated the alarm of hawks, who see the career Foreign Service as a bastion of overpolite cookie-pushers and status-quo pragmatists.

For all his towering reputation and managerial gifts, Powell started in his job with two serious operational handicaps. He was not an intimate of the new president, and he was viewed with mistrust by the unilateralists who seemed to have custody of the unschooled president's worldview.

New presidencies often start out as extensions of the campaign war room, driven by the glib convictions of the debate briefing book and powered by the loyalties tested in the heat of political combat. Compared, for example, with Condoleezza Rice, who had been the candidate's foreign-policy tutor and spent her weekends grafted to the president's side, or to Dick Cheney, Powell had not really been there. Powell spent the campaign year giving speeches at $75,000 apiece, promoting his program for poor kids, America's Promise, and savoring a life beyond his official duties -- a wife he reveres, a hobbyist's devotion to tinkering with old Volvos, a reading list that extends beyond the daily intelligence digest. His most conspicuous role in the Bush campaign had been a speech at the Republican convention in Philadelphia, in which he scolded the party for being insensitive to the condition of minorities. The speech played well at a gathering designed as a showcase of inclusiveness, but it compounded the doubts of party zealots that Powell was a Republican in his soul.

Powell's son, Michael, a free-market Republican who is chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said his liberal friends find it hard to believe that his father, an African-American centrist who supports affirmative action and abortion rights, could feel at home in the Republican Party. ''They say, 'He's not really one of you, right?''' And a fair number of Republicans undoubtedly feel the same way, that he's not really ''one of us.''

''For the bulk of his career he did the kind of things that are relatively politically agnostic,'' said Michael, whose own Army career was cut short by a near-fatal car crash. ''Even when there was contemplation he'd run for president, the biggest speculation was, As what? I mean, what greater accolade to a soldier than, You don't even know his politics?''

For Powell, membership in the Republican Party is less a matter of theology than of style and loyalty to the political mentors who promoted him, beginning in the Reagan administration. He likes the discipline, the respect for authority and tradition -- and, of course, the party's support of the military -- more than the conservative social agenda, the chest-beating unilateral streak or the distaste for government. ''What we both are, is moderates,'' his son said.

Powell's temperance in affairs of state matches an instinctive caution honed in a meteoric military career that depended heavily on the patronage of admiring, mostly Republican, civilians. He has never been a boat-rocker, although along the way he has occupied some boats that wanted rocking. As military assistant to Reagan's defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, for example, he acquiesced in a White House scheme to sell missiles to Iran in the hope of liberating American hostages; his conduct brought him a mild rebuke from the independent counsel -- and a promotion. His old mentor Weinberger sums up Powell this way: ''Colin is quintessentially a good soldier. He does his duty and carries out orders.''

Like many soldiers of his generation, Powell took from Vietnam, along with two wounds and a chestful of decorations, a disillusioning lesson in the politics of war, a determination not to agree to what he called ''halfhearted warfare for half-baked reasons.'' In 1984, when he was Weinberger's military aide, he was impressed by a speech the defense secretary gave articulating a series of tests a commander in chief should apply before using military force. During the Balkan conflict, when Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a reporter for this newspaper compiled these guidelines and labeled them the ''Powell Doctrine.'' In brief, it calls for the use of force to be clearly synchronized with political ends and for force to be applied decisively. (Powell has used the word ''overwhelming,'' though he now disavows it.) The doctrine does not specify that wars should be quick, low-casualty and popular, but it certainly smiles on such wars. Powell says that he has always regarded his rules as guidelines, not dogma -- a safeguard against wars, like Vietnam, that demoralize the country and damage American prestige. He argues that the people he calls ''Kmart parents'' -- working-class Americans who tend to be the parents of soldiers -- should understand why their children are being put at risk and should never doubt that the country will back them to the hilt.

His rules for the application of force have been maligned by more interventionist critics, liberal and conservative, as an excuse for inaction.

''He is exceedingly cautious,'' said an official who, like everyone with aspirations of influence, refused to criticize Powell for the record. ''Cautious to the point where he will reject audacious options, even well-considered ones.'' When asked about this, Powell retorted: ''Caution is not a vice. I think it's a virtue. I know when to act. And if caution is such a terrible vice, then I'm sure the various people I've worked for over the years probably would not have hired me.''

The most controversial application of the Powell Doctrine was in Bosnia, where Powell's aversion to committing American force was outspoken and adamant, verging on coldhearted. Powell worried at each step that ostensibly limited American involvement -- airdrops of food and medicine for Bosnian Muslims, air strikes against Serbs -- would lead inexorably to a deep and bloody American involvement. He seemed to sense something ordained by history in the war of Muslims and Serbs. He approvingly quoted Bismarck's remark that all the Balkans were not worth the life of one of his soldiers.

Powell's reluctance matched the sentiment in the first Bush White House, where President Bush was running a difficult re-election campaign against a public sense that he was too preoccupied with foreign policy. Powell still had eight months to serve as chairman when President Clinton came to office, fresh from a campaign in which he excoriated Bush for sitting by while Serbs slaughtered Muslims in Bosnia. But the new president's attention was on health care and the economy, and his national security team was haunted by ghosts of the Vietnam entanglement. Madeleine Albright, then the ambassador to the United Nations, and James Woolsey, the C.I.A. director, argued for intervention, but they were outnumbered, and overshadowed by the impressive figure of Powell.

There is a famous encounter between Powell and the Clintonites that gets recounted with different emphasis depending on who is doing the telling. The president's foreign policy advisers were agonizing over Bosnia, Powell arguing as usual that only a large ground force could change the behavior of the Serbs and that it was hard to envision a political goal for which the public would support the risk of American lives.

Those who favored intervention recount with relish Albright's outburst: ''What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?''

Supporters of Powell are more likely to recall his reaction, unvoiced but noted in his autobiography: ''I thought I would have an aneurysm. American G.I.'s were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board.''

But the revealing contribution came from Anthony Lake, the national security adviser, reflecting the disposition of an administration cowed by history: ''You know, Madeleine, the kinds of questions Colin is asking about goals are exactly the ones the military never asked during Vietnam.''

Powell left the government at the end of September 1993, but he continued to argue that Bosnia was ''baffling,'' insoluble and in any case not worth the risk of American lives. Although Bosnia today is, by virtue of NATO intervention, at peace, Powell says that he has no regrets about opposing military involvement.

President Clinton declined to be interviewed for this article, and several officials in his administration would not be quoted by name on the subject, but there is a lingering bitterness that Powell is not held more accountable for the Clinton administration's retreat from its campaign promises on Bosnia.

Clinton has also long fumed that Powell did not share the blame for the fiasco of Somalia, where 18 American commandos were killed in a misguided mission in 1993. Powell had reluctantly advised Clinton to order in commandos to help hunt down a warlord bedeviling an American-led humanitarian effort. Their deaths and desecration became a paralyzing symbol of the folly of well-intentioned foreign entanglements.

The angriest I have seen Powell was when I broached the subject of Somalia as we flew back from Asia. He surged forward in his seat, and I thought of what Michael Powell had told me about growing up with his father: ''I don't think I have any memory of ever being spanked or hit, but he could scare the bejesus out of you. He just had to be mad. It was enough.''

''I know what he says,'' Powell snapped, referring to Clinton, and then he began a smoldering account of how the situation in Somalia, almost inevitably, unraveled. The details of the sad climax are arguable, but they are peripheral compared with the bigger blunder, which was not Powell's doing: allowing an effort to feed starving Somalis to evolve into a campaign to introduce democracy where there was nothing but clan warfare.

As Powell is well aware, the war on terrorism strains his ideal of clear objectives and decisive commitments. The war is unconventional and likely to become more so as the Taliban retreat into the mountains. The broader declared purpose of making the world inhospitable for terrorists is murky and open-ended. But as one administration official put it: ''If you deconstruct the so-called doctrine into a set of questions, they are still important questions, and they're the questions Powell will keep asking: What, exactly, is the objective? Have we brought the right resources to bear? What happens next?''

That Powell now seems to be in tune with the president should not be so surprising. Apart from his more ideologically ardent handlers, Bush has always seemed to have an essentially optimistic temperament and an instinctive trust in personal relationships and in the ability of reasonable people to work things out. The issue on which Powell has worked hardest to close a gulf between himself and the president is Bush's apparently devout belief in missile defense. Before the antiterror campaign, the issue of missile defense was the single most important test of how the Bush administration would balance the new primacy of unfettered American self-interest against a pragmatic respect for the rest of the civilized world. The intramural debate on that issue continues, and it is as good a window as you can find into how Powell thinks and how he operates.

In the months of deliberations leading up to Vladimir Putin's inconclusive visit to the president's ranch in Crawford, Tex., Powell was the most forceful voice for a compromise on missile defense that would allow American testing to proceed without demolishing the scaffolding of arms-control agreements. Like many career soldiers, Powell has always been a skeptic about wizard weapons that promise to make warfare antiseptic, simple and safe. He likes his advances in military technology incremental and tested. In his view, civilian leaders who put their faith in smart bombs and high-altitude air power usually end up sending divisions of soldiers to die finishing the job.

Powell's suspicion of missile defense was nourished at its genesis, President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, which the young Pentagon aide watched with a kind of amused horror.

''Reagan, God bless him, was forever talking about this shield and, you know, We're just going to make all offensive weapons useless,'' Powell recalled, rolling his eyes. Powell saw antimissile technology at the time not as a utopian dream but as a useful way of throwing a scare into the war planners of the Soviet Union. Once U.S. negotiators had placed missile defense on a back burner as part of a deal cutting nuclear arsenals on both sides, Powell was happy to let it revert to a low-priority research project.

Fifteen years later, Powell says that the technology is more plausible and well worth advanced testing. What he has in mind is not a missile-tight umbrella of defenses in space, but sea-based rockets that might intercept a nuclear missile soon after launch and installations on American territory that might stop a missile as it descends. Powell invariably refers to ''limited'' missile defense, a phrase the president has now adopted. Powell is wary, though, of making missile defense the tail that wags the dog of foreign policy.

''One can argue whether you should give it this amount of attention, this amount of passion, and give it the foremost position on your agenda,'' Powell told me in September. If the United States can calculate a way around the A.B.M. treaty, which prohibits advanced testing, then ''it's just another defense program that will go into a more routine level of development without the kind of attention it's now getting.''

The argument within the administration has focused on exactly how to get around the A.B.M. treaty constraints. Rice and others at the Pentagon and in the White House wanted to drop the A.B.M. treaty altogether as a demonstration that America accepts no artificial limits on its national interest. They have argued that amending the treaty would entail a time-consuming ratification battle in the Senate and that even something less than a formal amendment -- a Russian side letter promising not to challenge certain tests -- would give the Russians too much leverage.

Powell's first preference is for an amendment to the treaty, which would assure the full blessing of Congress and avoid controversy he said the president didn't need. Failing that, he said he would be content with a less-formal understanding that certain specific tests were O.K. -- an agreement the Russians have so far balked at providing. The important thing, he said, was to avoid abandoning the treaty altogether, with the probable high price in Russian, European and Congressional good will. He argued that a concession to the Russians on the formalities of the A.B.M. treaty would be more than repaid in other ways -- their acquiescence in the expansion of NATO, the continued reform of their economy and, of course, their cooperation in the war against terror.

Powell is sympathetic to their anxieties.

''The one thing that scares them -- and I'd be scared if I were them, and we've got to figure out a way to deal with this: 'Powell, we love you like a brother. We don't care what the magazines in Washington say, we think you're great. But you'll be gone one day. Putin will be gone. Bush will be gone. Igor will be gone. And we will have made some kind of a deal now, and, great, it's a limited defense. Well, one day another president comes in, and he decides: ''I'll replicate it. I'll clone it. I'll geneticize it.'' And it goes from being a limited defense to: POW! Reagan's back. How do you persuade us that's not going to happen? We can't do this on the basis of personal relations. It has to be on the basis of our national interest over time.''' Which means, Powell said, ''You codify it somehow.

''A good argument you get on the other side, probably from Condi, is: 'Let's just do what we think is right. We really don't have to be bound up in the legal documents like we used to be with the Soviet Union.' We will see.''

Powell paused and pursed his lips in a grim smile.

Referring to the Russians, he said: ''You could just say, 'The heck with you.' I would rather not.''

Won't the Russians get over it if we decide to go it alone?

''They may get over it,'' he replied. ''But they also will be under no constraints as to what they might do in the future.''

Given Powell's stature -- Senator John McCain calls him ''the most popular person in America'' -- and the uncertain state of the vice president's health, there's considerable curiosity about whether Powell would ever revisit the question of higher office. What if, for example, Cheney's heart troubles were to recur and President Bush invited Powell to become vice president -- meaning a campaign role in 2004 and considerable pressure to run for president in 2008, when he would be 71?

I asked this question of everyone I interviewed who was close to Powell, and the reaction was almost universally dismissive. The attacks of Sept. 11 have certainly not diminished the powerful fears of his wife, Alma, that as a candidate Powell would be a target for every kind of madman. And Powell seems to have come to terms with his own visceral reluctance.

''Absolutely not,'' said Richard Armitage, probably Powell's closest friend in government. ''He's slept soundly from the time he made the decision on it. He said at the time: 'On mornings when I woke up and thought, I'm going to run, I felt terrible, it was a terrible day. On mornings I got up and said, I'm not going to, I had a wonderful day. And I finally came to realize, with all these people telling me, You have to run, they were looking for a shortcut, they wanted someone on a white horse. That's not the way our system works.'''

Powell's son, Michael, said it was ''very, very doubtful'' that his father would revisit the question, having ''resolved it in a pretty fundamental way.''

''But, and I guess this is an important but, he does have a sort of consummate commitment and love of service and serving the country,'' he continued. ''In the extreme, if the country was at war, if there were the kind of challenges with which he could come to grips, if there was some reason he was the right person for the right time -- I do think it would have to be some element that rose to that level in his mind to entice him to do it.'' That was the week before we declared ourselves at war.

If Powell wants a larger job, though, he need only stay put. Because now, with the rapid advances of anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan, it gets really complicated.

In a phone conversation last week, with the Taliban collapsing, Powell cited his own scripture: ''By Powell Doctrine standards, you keep your eye on the political objective, which is Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda network.''

But among the things Powell has committed America's diplomats to do, even before the military work is fully accomplished: help assemble a Muslim-led peacekeeping force in Afghanistan and then a reasonably stable, polyglot government without precedent; repay and reassure the government of Pakistan; try to defuse the explosive border dispute in Kashmir; and calculate a new relationship with the highly problematic government of Iran. He also appears set to inject himself, and possibly President Bush, in the cynics' nest of what America now freely calls Palestine. Powell will probably be spending a lot more time with yet another longtime coddler of terrorists, Yasir Arafat, and with yet another problematic general, Ariel Sharon.

And the minute the Afghan phase of the war on terror seems near an end, he may again have his hands full maintaining that other troublesome coalition, the Bush administration.