'Reluctant warrior' Powell gives Bush instant credibility boost

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 December, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 December, 2000, 12:00am

In a different America, Colin Powell would probably have been president.

Calm, rational and blessed with an easy eloquence, the former Gulf War military leader projects an aura of wisdom, intelligence and authority. Listen to him speak or give an interview, and it is not hard to see why he regularly tops national popularity polls.

As a black American, however, he has reportedly worried for a long time about the impact running for national office would have on his family. The presidency's loss has been George W. Bush's gain.

In naming him on Saturday as his nominee for secretary of state, president-elect Bush gave his fledgling administration an instant credibility boost and a touch of excitement.

No black American has ever been named to such a prominent post and both men had tears in their eyes as they reflected on the rise of this son of poor Jamaican immigrants who grew up on the tough streets of New York's South Bronx.

Mr Powell gained international prominence when, as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under former president George Bush Snr, he led the international military effort to drive Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in 1991.

While his new role will require vastly different skills, the Gulf War provides clues as to Mr Powell's guiding beliefs - and ideas that separate him from the more blunt, interventionist approach of outgoing incumbent Madeleine Albright, much less the far right of his own Republican Party.

Markedly less jingoistic than some of his military peers, Mr Powell has the appeal of the 'reluctant warrior'. He was a key advocate of pulling out of the Gulf once the key objective - pushing Saddam from Kuwait - had been achieved, rather than risking international tensions by pushing all the way to Baghdad to drive him from power once and for all.

The so-called 'Powell doctrine' advocates only deploying the military when the objective is clear and overwhelming force can be used - no more Vietnams, in other words.

This belief, forged during his two decorated tours of duty as a young soldier in the quagmire of Indochina, has at times placed him at odds with the three presidents he has served - Ronald Reagan, Mr Bush Snr and Bill Clinton.

It continues to arouse controversy among those keen to use swift American force in global 'scrub-fires' such as Somalia and the Balkans.

But it is an approach that places considerable stock in forward-thinking diplomacy - something that Mr Powell will need to use all his charms to exercise effectively in a post-Cold War world.

Those who know him well stress the importance of viewing Mr Powell as far more than merely a strong-man general in a suit. Bernard Trainor, a retired general who knew Mr Powell from the Reagan years, describes his appeal as distinctly low-key. 'He'll be very cautious. This is the man's nature,' he said.

'You will see a very circumspect secretary of state, a very persuasive secretary of state, who knows the instruments of power domestically and internationally and will play them very discreetly.'

At times, many Washington insiders have believed that Ms Albright struggled to influence Mr Clinton, and found herself 'outside the loop' on occasion. Mr Powell, however, may prove slightly more difficult for Mr Bush to ignore.