Colin Powell Reviews His Reviews

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Powell meets with the Kuwaiti foreign minister, Sheikh Sabah Al Sabah

Many government officials pretend that they ignore what the press says about them. Not Colin Powell.

The new secretary of state, just back from the Middle East after his first tour there as a civilian rather than a four-star general, was very much up on the first-night reviews of his performance. The liberal New York Times editorial was glowing: "a deft diplomatic debut," it said, noting that Powell "moved nimbly through his meetings" with Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat, and that he "gained new credit from his unpretentious diplomatic style". The Times concluded that while much remains to be done in that troubled region, "he is off to an impressive start." By contrast, the conservative Washington Times was scathing: Powell "went into the Middle East with a bang and came out with a whimper." Accusing Powell of following up America's bombing of the Baghdad radars (a good thing) with easing sanctions on Saddam (a bad thing), it sneered that his aim seems to be to figure out "how the United States can best bow to pressure from the Arab world." Equally bad, he "gave the Israelis a slap in the face" by telling them they should pay the $54 million in taxes owed to the Palestinian Authority. It concluded, "If Mr. Powell was trying to renew a friendship with an old ally through these actions, Israel wasn't impressed. Neither were the Arab countries who saw him speak out of both sides of his mouth. The Bush administration needs to come up with a consistent policy on the Middle East before the laughter from the Persian Gulf becomes deafening."

Somewhere in the middle was the usually definitive Wall Street Journal editorial page. It damned him with faint praise by remarking on the former general's admitted unfamiliarity with details of the security situation in Jerusalem: "That the secretary should so plainly confess his ignorance is a good sign." The Journal liked the fact that Powell seems ready "to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through fresh eyes." It didn't like Powell's criticism of Israel's "siege" of Palestinian territories, fretting he might go soft on terrorism, possibly "joining the predictable chorus" of Sharon critics.

During a post-trip debriefing with a few reporters, Powell made clear that despite getting, by his own count, only 12 hours sleep during the four-day jaunt, he'd found time to read all three editorials. "It was interesting," he said of his notices. "You know, I'm an old soldier, so I've got to figure out how the artillery is bracketing me. The New York Times said 'bravo,' the Washington Times said 'No,' and the Wall Street Journal kind of split the difference. So what do I do with that? I just keep going, trying to find the right answer."

But for the moment, as the editorials indicate, Powell's greatest risk politically is "friendly" fire coming from conservatives in his own party, and even his own administration. Republican senator Jesse Helms, chairman of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee, for one, believes the U.S. should be aggressively trying to topple Saddam, preferably by giving military support to the Iraqi opposition. During the interview, Powell was clearly cool to that idea. The main group, the exiled Iraqi National Congress, "is not an army," he said, "it's an organization staffed with political types." Although he allowed that it still remains U.S. policy to rid Iraq of Saddam, for now "we're still into a containment period" that could be successful for quite a while. For how long? He wouldn't say, but his analogies — Cuba and the Soviet Union — will surely scandalize hard-liners, who think Saddam could be ousted in a year. If Powell emerges as the dove in the Bush Cabinet, as some predict, he could be in for heavy flak from more than just a few editorial writers.