"The Only Voice I Listen To Is The President's."

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In his office last week, Colin Powell sat down with TIME reporters and talked about his job and his place on the Bush team. Excerpts:

TIME: What's been your worst surprise?

Powell: Nothing really shocked or stunned me walking in. I wanted to do everything that I could to make sure the morale [in the State Department] was high. And I was taken aback that so much needed to be done. But in about a week's time, we'll close the registration period for people to apply for the Foreign Service. And it's going to be the highest number in 15 years or so. So that kind of says the place is starting to bubble and jump.

TIME: What's been the most frustrating thing?

Powell: Sometimes I get frustrated making the case that the U.S. is not unilateralist. You can't be unilateralist. The world is too complicated for anyone to be unilateralist. In every Administration, there are many voices. But the only voice I really listen to is the voice of President George W. Bush. We've all known each other for many years. We get along fine. We have our little disagreements. Sometimes we have serious disagreements. Unlike, say, the TIME editorial-board meeting.

TIME: Do you sometimes feel like a lonely voice?

Powell: There may be some nuanced difference. But within a range, we usually come into agreement. I am what I am. If that sometimes puts me at odds with others, then, well, fine, and people can write about it.

TIME: North Korea?

Powell: It's usually the Exhibit A of Powell getting his knickers pulled. It was a clear, straightforward case where we were reviewing our North Korea policy. And in response to a question at a press conference, I gave an answer which was a little ahead of where the President was.

TIME: What about ABM?

Powell: We have said consistently that we are going for missile defense, and sooner or later our efforts in missile defense will run into the constraints of the ABM treaty. [The President] feels very strongly about it. We all do and are all committed to it.

TIME: Do you have an agenda as Secretary of State?

Powell: I would like to see our alliances strengthened. I would like to see NATO expanded. I would like to see us develop a very, very strong relationship with China. I also would like to be able to find a solution to the problems of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. My colleagues in the previous Administration poured their heart into this, and I give them all credit. They were constantly engaged, but at the same time, it didn't produce a result.

TIME: Do you think it's better to be as engaged as possible, even if you fail, than to be seen as not being engaged?

Powell: Failure is failure.

TIME: People say, "Where's Colin Powell?"

Powell: As the fall proceeds, I'll have the opportunity to give more speeches. I was in the newspaper two, three times a day speaking out on everything from returning to Vietnam to meetings with the Chinese to North Korea. And your colleagues were as happy as pigs in mud, filing twice a day. So come on, give me a break.

TIME: Do you feel a burden to rise to a higher level than Secretary of State?

Powell: Secretary of State: Quel dommage! I dealt with this six years ago, in one of the most difficult periods of my life, and made a decision that I never had a second thought about and was absolutely correct for me and my family.

TIME: Do you see Saddam as a threat?

Powell: I do not lose a lot of sleep about him late at night.

TIME: If Rwanda were happening tomorrow, what would you do?

Powell: Let's just say, if there was another situation that approached the Rwandan level, I think in light of what has happened in the past we'd have to take a very, very hard look at doing something. I think it would be very difficult simply to turn away.

TIME: People say you can't be fired. But would you resign?

Powell: In seven months I have never seen the situation where I haven't been able to work within this Administration. I think I have a pretty good reputation for problem solving. I am not the general who says, "That's an order." I don't think I've ever done that in 35 years of service. If I have to, I assure you, I can fire people. But I always find it much better to try to solve problems, not to create problems for your bosses.