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Colin Powell, the reluctant warrior, has emerged as the Bush administration's most persuasive advocate of military intervention in Iraq. From the start, Powell was seen as arm of restraint in a cowboy administration. The secretary of state won some battles and lost others, but he prevailed with the president on the ones that mattered. Powell is credited with persuading Bush to at least run his war plans by the United Nations and give diplomacy a chance. Without Powell, who commands respect at home and abroad, even among the French and Germans, it's likely there would be even less international support for Bush's Iraq policy.
In Wednesday's speech to the U.N. Security Council, Powell made the case for war more effectively and convincingly than President Bush has been able to do with his bellicose rhetoric. And he did it by laying out compelling evidence that Saddam Hussein is hiding chemical and biological weapons from U.N. inspectors and lying through his teeth. The word "evil" was not on Powell's tongue. In a measured tone, he methodically presented the evidence -- tape recordings of intercepted phone calls, satellite maps and other intelligence. Powell's job was made easier by Hans Blixer, the chief U.N. weapons inspector who earlier had given the world body an objective report on Iraqi non-compliance with the Security Council's disarmament resolution.
Powell's performance at the U.N. won bravos, even from some doves. He changed minds. Mary McGrory, a liberal Washington Post columnist, wrote: "I am persuaded." She still hopes war can be avoided, but if it can't be, she believes Powell has at least made a legitimate case for military action. Powell also moved public opinion. A solid majority now supports going to war with Iraq, even without U.N. support if necessary. Some of the Democratic presidential hopefuls who had been complaining about Bush's "rush to war" began rushing to touch Powell's diplomatic coattail. After Powell spoke, the Democrats were no longer demanding a "smoking gun," or insisting that Iraq poses no "imminent threat." They were snapping sharp salutes to Powell.
The nation now seems resigned to war, and when it comes, it will be Colin Powell's war as much as George W. Bush's. He has invested his reputation and credibility and Bush's hard line. A recent poll found that the American people, an overwhelming majority, trust Powell more than Bush to make the right decisions in foreign policy.
In recent weeks the American public was showing increasing signs of doubt and anxiety about going to war. Powell was able to halt -- at least temporarily -- the slippage in public support for war and drive the numbers upward, something Bush hadn't had much success in doing lately. The former general can be under no illusions about what may lie ahead. In the first Persian Gulf War, which was over quickly and decisively, Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This time, he will not be just a good soldier carrying out orders. In a war against Iraq, he knows that the risks will be greater, that American casualties could be heavy and that military victory will be the easy part.
"The game is over," the president told the world last week, referring to Iraq's lies and deceptions. That game may be over, but the debate here at home is not.
Not everyone is persuaded, and even among many who are, there are still concerns, doubts and questions. There are too many unknowns. Critics of the Bush policy need to continue to speak out and ask hard questions. When will the president level with the American people about the potential costs of the war, in blood and treasure? What if Saddam Hussein, on his way down for the count, arms terrorists with chemical and biological weapons to strike American targets at home and abroad? Or what if his Republican Guard uses those weapons on U.S. forces? How will we respond? What are the administration's plans for stabilizing Iraq after we occupy Baghdad? How long will American soldiers have to stay in Iraq while waiting for democracy to take hold in a country that, in the words of former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, "makes the former Yugoslavia seem homogeneous"?
Diplomacy appears to have run its course, although Bush said last week he is willing to ask the Security Council for a second resolution authorizing the use of military force to disarm Iraq. But he reiterated that the United States and its allies are prepared to do the job without U.N. backing if necessary. In the coming days and weeks, I wouldn't be surprised to see Saddam Hussein make some tactical concessions to strengthen the hand of those arguing that inspections will succeed if given more time.
Bush has made it clear he's in no mood for more hide-and-seek games. Neither apparently is Powell, no longer the reluctant warrior. The only thing that can head off a war at this point is if Hussein goes into exile somewhere in the Arab world or comes out with his hands up and confesses that he has been playing the world for fools. Don't bet on it either happening.