Bush Jr. put together something very different. He never imagined a team so moderate. He made his dad's conservative Defense Secretary his Vice President and put Don Rumsfeld, the hard-liner who taught Cheney how to do it, in the Pentagon. Into the White House he brought the impressive but fairly narrow Sovietologist Condoleezza Rice. She looked like a moderate but has steadily morphed to the right. Powell, by contrast, edged toward the center after leaving the Army, if not on goals at least on the diplomatic means.
That has made Powell chum in the water for the sharks in Dubya's sea. Thanks to Cheney and Rumsfeld, a generation of players with a well-honed ideology give the team a distinct hard-nosed tilt. When a friend asked Paul Wolfowitz, who is one of them, why he took the managerial No. 2 slot at Defense, he gave a one-word answer "Powell"--though Wolfowitz now denies it. These guys don't salute anyone, and they don't operate behind closed doors. They speak loudly, in public, and they make demands. Powell faces rivals who are interested less in solving problems, as he is, than in imposing their will on the Administration and the world.
A goodly handful were thrust upon Powell's staff, and he thought it was good politics not to protest too much. A few he actively blocked, like a Rumsfeld protege pushed for ambassador to NATO. Others languish in confirmation limbo. But some made it inside, and stir up trouble for him, like Star Warrior John Bolton in the powerful position of Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Powell insists he had a "free hand" to pick from nominations. "Where we had a meeting of the minds, and the person and I looked like we could work together well, I made a deal," he told TIME. "But the deal was always with me." His circle complains that subversives "were foisted on him." Says a veteran of the Reagan policy wars: "The people around Cheney and Rumsfeld are prepared to battle to the death. Colin's fighting with one arm tied behind his back."
This Administration prizes deference to the boss. Cheney, no longer a Powell fan, always fears that the general-hero could be too much his own man. He was outraged when Powell's 25-minute speech accepting his job rarely mentioned Bush in a substantive way. Cheney installed himself as overseer of defense and foreign policy portfolios, and sits in on the weekly lunches held by Rice, Rumsfeld and Powell. Lately his health and domestic issues have pulled Cheney back some. Despite his unilateralist outlook, White House aides say, the President still sees Cheney as an "honest broker," without the institutional agenda of Powell or Rumsfeld, which earns him a higher level of trust. Bush is said to admire and respect his Secretary of State. But when Bush doesn't know the issues, he falls back on personal relations. Powell was not a close adviser before Bush ran or in the campaign; he served the campaign mainly as a form of reassurance to voters, who could look at the general and say, well, at least Bush has Powell by his side.
That sweet spot is now occupied by Condi Rice. She taught Bush his ABCs in foreign affairs in their pre-presidency tutorials. Now she's just down the hall, whence it's easy to run into the Oval Office 10 times a day. Bush wants his info whittled down to one-page memos, and she writes them; he likes one-person oral briefings, and she provides them. He doesn't want to hear a cacophony of competing voices; she ensures that disputes are resolved before they reach him. And Rice hangs out with the First Family--spending a week at the Crawford Ranch last month, going up to Camp David for relaxing weekends. Rice and Bush watch movies and sports together.
"A lot of this is personal chemistry," says a top Bush aide. "Condi and the President are very close. They're friends. He trusts her. That means a lot." Everyone says Condi is like a daughter to Bush.
Rice has cultivated an ever higher profile, which by the zero-sum measurements of Washington implies a lower one for Powell. She has expanded her original role as "traffic cop" to include public explanations of policy, like her speech at the National Press Club two months ago, while great communicator Powell has been strangely silent. Rice, not Powell, went to Moscow to jawbone Russian President Vladimir Putin into dropping the 1972 ABM treaty that is blocking Bush's missile-defense plans.
On this, the President's ruling passion, she's active, she's public and she has apparently joined the Cheney-Rumsfeld camp in its determination to push the scheme through, come what may. Powell says steadfastly, "It isn't a threatening situation to me. She's not supposed to be in my corner. She's not supposed to be in Rumsfeld's corner. She's supposed to be in the President's corner, and she is, and she enjoys his confidence."
Powell still thinks the best way he can influence policy is privately, behind closed doors. "My job," he told TIME, "is to make sure [the President] gets what he needs to make proper decisions." He's not willing, so far, to do battle the Washington way--to go public with complaints or positions in which his eminence would make even Republicans quake. "It's not whether I prevailed or failed to prevail on a particular issue," he said. "I'm not looking for anything except to serve this President and the American people as best I can."
The question is, Can a Secretary of State do both after he gets slapped down? "He got absolutely cut off at the knees with the early initiatives he took," says a Democratic Senator on the Foreign Relations Committee. "If it were not a person of his stature, it would have killed a Secretary of State."
Pentagon friends say Powell was initially "blown off course" by Bush's basic principle of anything-but-Clinton. "If Clinton was pushing hard for it," says J. Stapleton Roy, ambassador to China for Bush Sr., "their instinct was to pull way back." But every Administration learns--often the hard way--that foreign policy inevitably snaps back from campaign rhetoric to the well-plowed tracks of enduring interests. And it was Powell who bore the brunt of the President's education.
When the Secretary jumped out front on Iraq, pushing to "toughen" crumbling U.N. sanctions against old nemesis Saddam Hussein by making them "smarter," conservatives scoffed that meant weaker. But Powell persuaded the President--because, say aides and rivals alike, he's very effective when he "marshals his facts." The Administration--and Powell--was embarrassed later, when Russia rebuffed the plan.
And as soon as Wolfowitz, a zealous advocate of "regime change" in Baghdad--backing dissidents to overthrow Saddam--settled into his office, he told European parliamentarians that Powell was not the last word on sanctions or Iraq policy. Enthusiasm is building inside the Administration to take down Saddam once and for all. Powell too would love to see Saddam unhorsed, says an official at State. "But you need a serious plan that's doable. The question is how many lives and resources you have to risk." Powell's unwillingness to fight any less-than-total war is legendary, and the particulars of launching a covert insurgency among the feuding Iraqi opposition factions would give any general pause. The proposition is still "hypothetical," he told TIME. But plenty of others on the Bush team are gung-ho.
Powell's public humiliation over North Korea is part of Washington lore. He said the Bush Administration would "pick up where the Clinton Administration left off" in negotiating a missile-proliferation deal with the North. The White House, annoyed that South Korea had just sided with Russia against Bush's missile shield and furious that Powell had uttered the word Clinton, said, No way. The next day Powell had to step out and retract his position. He took the setback stoically, at least in public. When the dust settled, he told reporters, "I got a little far forward on my skis." But friends say he felt "as if he learned his lesson."
Yet Powell was soon humbled again by what a former diplomat called "needless unilateralism" over Kyoto. White House rejection of the protocol just as he was heading to Europe to sell missile defense caught the Secretary by surprise. He doesn't disagree that the treaty is fatally flawed, "but the manner of handling it is another matter," says a top State official. As Powell told TIME, "That's one where, you know, I would have done it differently." His preference is not to ride roughshod over treaties that most of the globe supports if he can find a more subtle way to advance American interests. He told the still nettled Europeans in mid-July that a replacement proposal would emerge by October. Ten days later, Rice declared there was no fixed date, much less a plan.
It's precisely that America-first approach that has caused such consternation over missile defense, where the unilateralists are rushing events along. Powell has to shoulder the so-far unsuccessful chore of pacifying allies and adversaries who take a dim view. In more than seven sit-downs with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, he has tried to persuade an unyielding Moscow to say O.K. Everyone who opposes missile defense or wants to slow it down looks to Powell as the go-to guy.
But if you listen to Powell, you'll note some miscasting. He was never more passionate during his interview with TIME than when he leaned forward to argue the wisdom of trying to devise a defense shield. "We would be irresponsible if we didn't find ways to see if we could protect the American people," Powell said. "It's a threat we believe we have the technical capacity to do something about. So why wouldn't the President be committed to do that? He feels very strongly about it. We all do and are all committed to it." He sounds as if he is a lot more conservative on this issue than has been made out. The White House says it loves what he's saying. "He's very good at explaining the Administration's position and rationale," says a senior official. "He's clearly internalized it."
That, or he's given up a fight he thinks he can't win. Powell knew from the outset that this was Bush's one cherished foreign policy. "It comes directly from the President," says a State official. "He's asking every day, 'How's it going? What progress is there?'" It colors everything else in the Secretary of State's portfolio. "The constant question is, How will this or that impact on missile defense?" says another senior diplomat. Missile defense isn't Powell's No. 1 priority, but a top official from the Reagan-Bush era says he has made the decision that if this is theology with Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush, "it's not his desire nor is it his style to go to battle on it."
That leaves Powell to tinker on the margins. He's not averse to walking away from the ABM treaty. He's for Rice's "grand bargain" to couple a new defense shield with way-low offensive arsenals. But he's at odds with the others on how and when to get out of the treaty. He would like to do it more delicately, while making a sincere effort to talk Russia into agreement.
Moderates look to Powell for that. Says a British diplomat: "We view him as someone who will be proved right in the end." But two weeks ago in Moscow, arms-control envoy Bolton implied that Bush wanted the "ranch summit" with Putin in November to constitute a deadline for a deal. Only hours later, Washington officials insisted that it was a mistranslation, but rumors still swirl of an impending deadline "a very few months away." An official deeply involved in the issue tells TIME, "There'll be something by Crawford, because the President is never wrong."
Powell has certainly had his successes. He brilliantly rallied the troops at State and rebuilt a demoralized institution. The White House lets him run free on Africa and AIDS. But he has had little time to put a distinctive mark on policy, in part because he is too busy cleaning up messes. He fought Rice to get Bush to renege on his campaign promise to bring home U.S. troops from the Balkans. He moved Bush back toward talking to North Korea. He quelled hard-line rumbling when he took charge of retrieving the American spy-plane crew from China; Pentagon officials seeking retaliation were forced to withdraw their announcement that the U.S. would sever ties with the Chinese military. In the past month, Powell's advocacy has brought a gun-shy Administration to consider re-engaging in the Middle East, the toughest issue out there. He has been heard to complain to friends: "Do you know how much worse it would be without me?"
So perhaps the real Secretary Powell has yet to stand up. The downside of his great eminence is that he is judged by higher standards. People are not itching for him to fail; they are disappointed if he doesn't do great things. When he said in those famous Gulf War briefings, "Trust me, trust me," everyone did. Many would again, given the chance.
In his previous roles, the more elusive Powell's essential beliefs seemed, the more his stature grew. In this job, it's the opposite. So he must step into the spotlight, at least now and again. Admirers from Capitol Hill to the capitals of Europe like to say the great man is just biding his time. "He's playing for the long term," says a close friend. "There is a real danger in underestimating Colin. In time this will all be taken care of." A longtime former military pal says, "His idea is to wait until the conservatives screw up, and then he'll come in and take over." Yet another old friend notes, "No one has screw-you rights like he does." As Powell told TIME, "I can eat bullets. I can be nasty if I have to be." He is still an independent power; Bush can't afford to fire him, and he can't afford to let him walk away mad. But "in seven months," said Powell, "I've never seen the situation where I haven't been able to work within this Administration. 'Do it my way or else I walk'--it's not my style."
When you ask Powell where he had put his foot down, he pauses a long time, then says, "Hmmm." He's most intent on preserving team harmony. He portrays himself as done with ambition: "I don't have any personal need to shine." He says he's a "problem solver," the practical man who knows how to make the system work with minimal friction, the one who carries out the vision, not the one who imagines it.
So those hoping for a Secretary of Stature setting a course for the 21st century may mistake the nature of the man. Maybe it is unreasonable to expect something else from the ultimate staff guy, the good soldier who punched four stars in 35 years in an organization that rewards loyalty and prizes the chain of command--just like his boss. In today's messy world, maybe doing nothing stupid is the only doable agenda. Powell, surely, sees himself as a man who is worth more than history's appreciative footnotes. But you need to impress something of your own shape on the world if you want to rise to the level of the men whose portraits hang in Powell's office--George Marshall and Thomas Jefferson.
Reported by Massimo Calabresi, Margaret Carlson, James Carney, Michael Duffy, Mark Thompson and Douglas Waller/Washington and J.F.O. McAllister/London