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Powell and Joint Chiefs Nudged Bush Toward U.N.
By Dana Milbank and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 4, 2003; Page A01
On Tuesday, President Bush's first day back in the West Wing after a month at his ranch, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell walked into the Oval Office to present something close to a fait accompli.
In what was billed as a routine session, Powell told Bush that they had to go to the United Nations with a resolution seeking a U.N.-sanctioned military force in Iraq -- something the administration had resisted for nearly five months. Powell, whose department had long favored such an action, informed the commander in chief that the military brass supported the State Department's position despite resistance by the Pentagon's civilian leadership. Bush and his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, whose office had been slow to embrace the U.N. resolution, quickly agreed, according to administration officials who described the episode.
Thus was a long and high-stakes bureaucratic struggle resolved, with the combined clout of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the State Department persuading a reluctant White House that the administration's Iraq occupation policy, devised by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, simply was not working.
The effort by Powell and the military began with a tete-a-tete in Qatar on July 27 between the top U.S. commander in Iraq and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was furthered in a discussion between the Joint Chiefs chairman and Bush at the president's ranch on Aug. 8. And it was cemented in the past 10 days after Powell's deputy, Richard L. Armitage, went public with the proposal.
For an administration that prides itself on centralized, top-down control, the decision to change course in Iraq was uncharacteristically loose and decentralized. As described by officials in the White House, State Department and Pentagon, the White House was the last to sign on to the new approach devised by the soldiers and the diplomats. "The [Pentagon] civilians had been saying we didn't need any more troops, and the military brass had backed them," a senior administration official said. "Powell's a smart guy, and he knew that as soon as he had the brass behind him, that is very tough to ignore."
For months, Rumsfeld and his civilian aides had successfully resisted wishes of the State Department and the British government for U.N. help, arguing that U.S. troops, and foreign troops assembled outside U.N. authority, could get the job done. But this time was different, because the situation in Iraq made Rumsfeld's view look increasingly doubtful to the White House. A wave of attacks -- at the Jordanian Embassy, U.N. headquarters and Najaf -- convinced many officials that there were not enough U.S. troops in Iraq to maintain order. Nor were there enough foreign troops or American reserves to replace 40,000 troops Rumsfeld planned to bring home.
While the administration's plan to go to the Security Council surfaced publicly only in recent days, the seeds of the effort can be found in a trip by Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. While Myers was in the area, he had a 90-minute private session in Qatar on July 27 with Gen. John Abizaid, the new chief of the U.S. Central Command and the top commander in Iraq, who pressed him to accelerate efforts to bring in more international force.
According to one senior defense official, who spoke on the condition that he not be quoted by name, Myers came home determined "to get some international troops in here to do things international troops are good at doing -- de-mining, peacekeeping." Myers was convinced international peacekeeping forces were necessary to free U.S. forces to go on the offensive against remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baathist Party. Back in the United States, the official said, the usually deferential Myers "took that message reasonably strong to the president," when he visited Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., early last month with Rumsfeld and others.
Abizaid, unusual for a field commander, also talks frequently with Powell, though it could not be determined whether they coordinated their efforts. But, about the same time as Myers went to Bush, State Department officials started to put pen to paper on the draft of a proposed resolution in early August. The department had long favored such an action but was waiting until the right time to make its case to Bush. After the bombing of U.N. headquarters, officials saw an opportunity. Though "it looked a little ghoulish" to act immediately, as one senior official put it, they began to prepare.
While the brass and the diplomats worked their cases, events made Rumsfeld's strategy seem untenable to many administration officials. The ongoing violence in Iraq gave new attention to Democratic presidential candidates' claims that Bush was mishandling the situation there -- just in time for the traditional, post-Labor Day kickoff of the presidential election season.
Concern was furthered by a Congressional Budget Office report that the U.S. Army could not sustain troop strength in Iraq. Bush's Iraq administrator, L. Paul Bremer, came to Washington with a stark message for Bush about his need for resources. And Bush, who is expected to speak to the United Nations in three weeks, needed a clear policy.
"You find an interesting correlation with the political calendar," said Leon Fuerth, who was then-Vice President Al Gore's national security adviser. "They were saying everything is under control and people were not buying it. There became a pressure to change course."
A diplomat at the United Nations who closely followed the evolution of the U.S. position said the "spark" for this week's decision was a meeting between Powell and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan at the United Nations on Aug. 21, two days after the car-bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. The diplomat said Annan made it clear in that meeting that "the best feasible option was a multinational force under U.S. command," a notion that Powell believed he could sell in part because of the turn of events in Iraq. The idea of a U.S.-led multinational coalition with a U.N. mandate was broached publicly for the first time on Aug. 26 by Deputy Secretary of State Armitage.
The White House was taken by surprise. "The floating of this idea was not expected by the White House," a senior administration official said. "It is very rare that an idea catches the White House by surprise, then is so quickly adopted."
Bush's national security officials, such as Rice and deputy Stephen J. Hadley, were aware of the long-standing disagreement between the State and Defense departments on a U.N. role but did not take sides because Powell was keeping his powder dry.
Sources said White House officials were still throwing cold water on the U.N. resolution when Bush returned from Texas over the weekend. Just a few hours before Bush's meeting with Powell, White House press secretary Scott McClellan stood at his lectern and distanced Bush from what McClellan called "one of a number of ideas," saying the United Nations was already playing the role that Bush had promised.
In fact, Armitage's public remarks had the effect of galvanizing the military brass. It was the kind of solution -- U.N. military help under U.S. authority -- the Joint Chiefs of Staff had been seeking. "It was Armitage's statement that gave it traction," a Pentagon official said.
Once the Joint Chiefs made their concerns known, the long-standing opposition by the civilian part of the Pentagon to a greater role for the United Nations began to crumble, allowing Powell to tell Bush he had a good consensus for the draft document he presented to Bush on Tuesday. "The Joint Chiefs are the new factor here," a senior administration official said. Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently began lobbying key members of the administration to support a resolution.
Sources said there was a continued lack of receptivity, however, in the office of one of Rumsfeld's top aides, Douglas J. Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy. Feith and his staff "didn't want foreign help" and argued "we can do it better than anybody else; leave us alone," a senior Pentagon official said.
Feith rejected that characterization as "made up out of whole cloth" and said yesterday that for weeks he had championed the idea of going to the United Nations.
At the same time, it was becoming obvious that the administration could not recruit enough foreign troops without U.N. support. "The U.S. had gone around knocking on just about every possible door looking for money and troops, and they got the same answer everywhere: We need some kind of a new resolution," a diplomat at the United Nations said.
"All these strands came together and reached a critical mass," the diplomat said. "The coalition authority is broke. They need bodies. The administration finally understands that you can't have reconstruction while destruction is still going on."
While Bush finished his vacation, the State Department speeded up planning for the circulation of a resolution. At the end of August, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said he had been working with Powell on a new resolution over the previous two weeks. Then, this week, Powell made the final pitch to Bush.
People close to the administration said the Joint Chiefs and Powell (a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs) did not win a bureaucratic battle as much as Rumsfeld lost one. "Rumsfeld lost credibility with the White House because he screwed up the postwar planning," said William Kristol, a conservative publisher with close ties to the administration. "For five months they let Rumsfeld have his way, and for five months Rumsfeld said everything's fine. He wanted to do the postwar with fewer troops than a lot of people advised, and it turned out to be a mistake."
Pentagon spokesmen said there would be no official Defense Department comment for this report.
Staff writers Mike Allen, Vernon Loeb, Glenn Kessler and Peter Slevin contributed to this report.
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