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April 19, 2004
Airing of Powell's Misgivings Tests Ties in the Cabinet
By STEVEN R. WEISMAN
WASHINGTON, April 18 ﾑ For more than a year, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his aides have tacitly acknowledged that he was concerned before the war about what could go wrong once American forces captured Iraq.
But Mr. Powell's apparent decision to lay out his misgivings even more explicitly to the journalist Bob Woodward for a book has jolted the White House and aggravated long-festering tensions in the Bush cabinet. Moreover, some officials said, the book has created problems for the secretary inside the administration just as the situation in Iraq is deteriorating and President Bush is plunging into his re-election drive.
Mr. Powell has not acknowledged that he cooperated with Mr. Woodward, but the book presents the secretary's reservations in such detail that it leaves little doubt. A spokesman for Mr. Powell said again Sunday that he would not comment on the book, "Plan of Attack."
Critics of Mr. Powell in the hawkish wing of the administration said they were startled by what they saw as his self-serving decision to help fill out a portrait that enhances his reputation as a farsighted analyst, perhaps at the expense of Mr. Bush. Several said the book guaranteed what they expected anyway, that Mr. Powell will not stay as secretary if Mr. Bush is re-elected.
The view expressed Sunday by people in the administration that Mr. Bush comes across as sober-minded and resolute in the book, asking for contingency plans for a war early on but not deciding to wage one until the last minute, saves Mr. Powell from any immediate difficulties that might grow from seeming to betray his confidential relationship to a president who prizes loyalty, several officials said.
"Look, a lot of people have been struck by the degree to which Secretary Powell is using this book as an opportunity ﾑ to be fair ﾑ to clarify his position on the issues," said an official. "But what this book does is muddy the water internally, which is very unfortunate and unhelpful."
Another official, who like others declined to be identified because of the political sensitivity of their criticism, accused Mr. Powell of having a habit of distancing himself from policies when they go wrong. "It's such a soap opera with him," this official said.
Democrats seized on Mr. Powell's portrayal, saying it would give them ammunition to criticize the administration for going to war without broad international backing or adequate planning for an occupation.
Throughout the day Sunday, Senator John Kerry brought up the Woodward book, mentioning it twice in his interview on "Meet the Press" on NBC and once at an outdoor rally at the University of Miami.
"Here we have a book by a reputable writer," Mr. Kerry told several thousand students at the afternoon campus rally. "We learn that the president even misled members of his own administration."
Asked if material in Mr. Woodward's book would be grist for his party, Jano Cabrera, the spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said in an interview: "Absolutely. It's one thing for us to assert it. It's another thing for it to be stated as fact by his secretary of state."
And Steve Murphy, who managed the presidential campaign of Representative Richard A. Gephardt, said: "The strongest criticism of Bush is that he did not have a plan for the aftermath of the war. And that was exactly what Powell was pointing out to him. He is a credible source. This intensifies the backdrop between Bush and Kerry."
People close to Mr. Powell said Sunday that they had no doubt he would weather any criticism from within over his apparent cooperation with Mr. Woodward, an assistant managing editor at The Washington Post. Polls show that he is one of the most popular and best-known figures in government. The people close to him note that most people following the situation closely knew that he had misgivings about the war.
"Is the secretary going to be undercut for having been right?" asked an official close to Mr. Powell. "I don't think so. Undercut compared to who? Donald Rumsfeld? Dick Cheney? These are people who have some real problems right now. They're not reading Bob Woodward's book. They're reading the dispatches from the field."
Other officials close to Mr. Powell say his strained relations with Mr. Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, and Vice President Cheney are common currency among Washington insiders, though they say the suggestion that Mr. Cheney and Mr. Powell are barely on speaking terms is highly exaggerated.
"I don't think there will be much change in his dealings with Cheney and Rumsfeld," said one person close to Mr. Powell. "People already thought it was this bad. It doesn't change things for them to find out that it really was. They know how to deal with each other, and they've been through quite a bit together."
When asked on "Fox News Sunday" about Mr. Woodward's contention that Mr. Cheney and Mr. Powell are so distant on policy matters that they do not talk, Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, described the men's relationship as "friendly."
"I can tell you," she said, "I've had lunch on a number of occasions with Vice President Cheney and with Colin Powell, and they are more than on speaking terms. They're friendly."
But another official said Mr. Powell's dealings internally with Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld especially had made life difficult for people inside the administration.
"The day-to-day nattering of the Defense Department trying to take over the business of diplomacy at every level, it's just difficult to be on the inside," said an administration official who defends Mr. Powell's actions. "Every day is difficult. The byplay at the meetings is difficult."
Mr. Powell's standing around the world was less easy to measure this weekend. But a European diplomat said he thought the secretary's standing in Europe especially would only be enhanced because he would be seen as sharing the view of many there that the administration had been overly optimistic about subduing dissidents in Iraq.
For the people long familiar with Mr. Powell's thinking, his misgivings about an American occupation of Iraq, and his insistence on getting full international backing for American actions, goes back many years. So, they note, does his fighting with Mr. Cheney.
For example, Mr. Powell's memoir, "My American Journey," published in 1995 after he retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that he had opposed a final push to oust Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Persian Gulf war on the ground that an occupation would provoke a counterinsurgency and criticism among Americans.
In addition, many accounts of the planning for the first gulf war say that Mr. Cheney, then secretary of defense, opposed going to the United Nations or Congress for backing to remove Iraq from Kuwait, fearing that failure would weaken the first President Bush's administration's ability to go to war.
In 2002, Mr. Cheney was openly disdainful of Mr. Powell's insistence on getting approval of the United Nations Security Council before going to war, spreading consternation at the State Department. Mr. Powell won that argument, and President Bush authorized a bid to get a Security Council resolution supporting war.
Mr. Powell's memoir also recalls an exchange in the early 1990's, in which Mr. Powell accused Mr. Cheney ﾑ jokingly, he insisted ﾑ of being surrounded by "right-wing nuts like you." In the last year, the Woodward book says, Mr. Powell referred privately to the civilian conservatives in the Pentagon loyal to Mr. Cheney as the Gestapo.
The Woodward book also attributes to Mr. Powell the belief that although he had misgivings about going to war, it was his obligation to support the president once Mr. Bush decided to do so.
Mr. Bush told Mr. Woodward that he did not ask the secretary's opinion on whether to go to war because he thought he knew what that opinion would be: "no."
But a senior aide to Mr. Powell asserted this weekend that the secretary was not as opposed to war as some people presume, no matter what the implications in the book.
"The portrait of Powell in the Woodward book is pretty consistent with what everybody knows," the official said. "We were with the president if we had to do this. We set up an exit ramp for Saddam, and he didn't take it. Powell in the end was very comfortable knowing that."
Adam Nagourney contributed reporting from Washington for this article and Jodi Wilgoren from Miami.