It has often been said that Colin Powell is politically popular because he is a blank slate.
We do know some things about where he stands on some issues, but we do not know what solutions he offers to America's problems.
And, the popular wisdom goes, if and when he does run for president or vice president he will be forced to talk about those solutions and reveal his stands and, therefore, his popularity must plummet as various interest groups desert him. (He is pro-choice, for instance.)
But there is another trouble spot ahead for Powell that has nothing to do with his political platform:
There are real questions about how Powell conducted the Persian Gulf war, how much he knew about atrocities in Vietnam, how much he is to blame for that disastrous raid in Somalia, and whether his military stance was helpful or harmful in Bosnia.
Some, perhaps many, will think even raising such questions is unfair to a man who is widely regarded as a genuine American hero.
But the very fact that they are being raised, most prominently by the New York Times, is a sign of just how much scrutiny even potential candidates for high office can expect these days.
Here are some of the questions being raised about Powell and the gulf war:
* It has been reported that one out of every five American combat deaths in the gulf war was due to friendly fire. There have been accusations that the U.S. military shamefully tried to cover up its role in these deaths. If Powell gets so much credit for the victory in the gulf war, should not he also get some blame for the tragedy?
* Though during the war the Pentagon ran an impressive audio-visual display of smart bomb after smart bomb hitting its target, reportedly most of the smart bombs missed, and there are those who say that their success ratio was no better than "dumb," un-guided bombs, would have had. The difference? Smart bombs are vastly more expensive than dumb bombs.
* Some say the Patriot missiles that were ballyhooed as saving the cities of our gulf allies and protecting our troops were woefully inadequate. One of the most effective weapons in the gulf war turned out to be the cheap, relatively low-tech Scud. And the enemy was using that.
* A very tough article printed in the New York Times Magazine on Aug. 27 charges that a careful look back at Powell's performance as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff "shows someone who's less a modern MacArthur than a master bureaucrat, skillful in dealing with the press and adept at escaping blame for questionable decisions, risk-averse to the point of timidity."
The article also says "that Powell reluctantly endorsed the decision to send American commandos to hunt a Somali warlord -- a fateful move that led to the death of 18 Americans and the wounding of scores more -- but he allowed Defense Secretary Les Aspin to take the blame." Aspin was forced to resign; Powell was not.
Further, the article, authored by Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, who wrote "The Generals' War" about the gulf conflict, states that though Powell is one of the heroes of the gulf war, he didn't want to wage it, preferring instead to "rely on sanctions for as long as two years."
In addition, the article points out that Powell served two tours in Vietnam and acted as the chief of operations for the Americal division. "The division achieved notoriety for covering up the 1968 My Lai massacre, though Powell insists he knew nothing about it."
The article also questions Powell's reluctance to use force in Bosnia. During the Bush administration he "opposed establishment of a no-fly zone over Bosnia to stop Serb air attacks," and the article says "military and civilian critics say an early and punishing response by the West might have headed off brutality there."
Powell may have excellent answers to all these questions and some of the questions may be off-base or unfair.
But if Powell runs for president or even vice president, these questions are going to be asked and answers are going to be demanded not just by the press, but by Powell's political enemies.
There is no doubt that Powell is a man of great personal courage who has faced enemies before.
But in a political race, you don't get to shoot your enemies. You have to answer them.