WASHINGTON -- Just as he did a dozen years ago, Colin L. Powell is playing the role of "reluctant warrior" in an administration preparing for possible military action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The secretary of state worries that a war, particularly one in which the United States fights alone, could destabilize the Middle East and undermine the international coalition he has carefully tended since Sept. 11 to fight a global battle against the al-Qaida terror network, associates say.
He wants to take the time to build international pressure on Iraq, starting with a new push to resume United Nations weapons inspections, while showing the Arab world that the United States remains committed to a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Powell may yet prevail with his constituency of one -- President Bush -- in slowing the momentum toward war. Bush's decision, announced Wednesday, to seek a resolution of congressional support and to make his case against Iraq this week before the U.N. General Assembly shows that Powell's views are being heard.
But his is just one voice among several that the president listens to and respects. And Powell holds a mixed record in winning over his commander in chief on matters of war and peace.
As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1990, he fell out of step with Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, during the buildup to the Persian Gulf war.
When in September 1990, he urged the president to consider relying on U.N.-imposed sanctions to strangle Iraq into surrendering Kuwait, the elder Bush listened and then dismissed his argument: "That's very interesting. It's good to consider all angles. But I really don't think we have time for sanctions to work."
In that instance, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney had a closer read on the president's views and on Saddam Hussein's intentions.
In his 1996 autobiography, Powell wrote that he was "guilty" of being a "reluctant warrior."
"War is a deadly game; I do not believe in spending the lives of Americans lightly," he wrote in explanation of his stance.
A similar scenario is playing out now, with the president's views hanging in the balance. Cheney, now vice president, has become a forceful advocate for preemptive action to topple the Iraqi dictator, aligning himself with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Cheney says he fears that Hussein could develop nuclear weapons "fairly soon," threatening the region, and perhaps the United States, with mass death, and has seen troubling signs of Iraqi links to al-Qaida terrorists. A renewal of U.N. weapons inspections, he warned two weeks ago, could lull the world into a false sense of security.
Powell, for his part, also says that the Iraqi dictator has to be removed, but doesn't speak with the same urgency as Cheney and Rumsfeld. He believes weapons inspections are an essential first step in trying to disarm Iraq, as well as in building world support for future military action. Like former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, who also served in the first Bush administration, Powell is skeptical that Hussein would share his dangerous arsenal with terror groups.
And unlike some of the administration's hard-liners, Powell is concerned that a U.S. attack on Iraq could jeopardize ties with other oil-producing nations in the Persian Gulf and thinks the United States must continue to make a visible effort in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
"He wants to examine the military question, the diplomatic question, the effects on our other interests, and come up with a realistic plan," for ousting Hussein, an aide said.
This internal administration dispute is just the latest in a series that has pitted Powell and his top aides at the State Department against Rumsfeld and his more conservative advisers at the Pentagon. Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice have often tilted toward Rumsfeld.
Bush, who entered office with little foreign policy experience, is "well served" by hearing strong competing views from such seasoned advisors, says Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Illinois Republican who chairs the House International Relations Committee. Rumsfeld, Powell and Rice "are a pretty heady brew."
Powell's relationship with Bush "is easy, familial and with a lot of mutual respect," says a senior White House official who has watched the two men together. "There's a lot of joshing that goes on, a lot of laughter."
Bush, doing what the official calls his "country-boy shtick," will tease Powell about "the striped-pants set"; the secretary will tease Bush about Texas.
Overseas, Powell is widely viewed as a key moderating influence within the administration. "He's the tendon that keeps the administration even remotely connected to the international system," says a congressional official.
"His approach to dealing with the problems of our region is quite reasonable and reflects a deep understanding of the issues we face," says Jordan's ambassador to Washington, Karim Kawar.
Powell has swayed Bush in enough internal battles for a top State Department aide to insist that the secretary's "way of doing things" usually prevails. The aide noted that Powell got Bush to agree to a formal treaty with Russia on mutual nuclear-weapons reductions instead of the less-binding handshake deal that Bush preferred.
To avoid a split with Europe, Powell squelched a Pentagon move to pull American peacekeeping forces out of Bosnia, and brought Bush around to the idea of resuming a dialogue with North Korea. Powell won from Bush a major increase in foreign aid and support for an international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan.
But Powell often is forced to accept, and then to sell, a policy that represents a hybrid of his, Rumsfeld's and Cheney's views.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Middle East policy, where Powell is described by Bush to Arab leaders as his point man, but where defense officials now wield more influence than during the past two administrations. The Pentagon, for example, has strongly backed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's efforts to suppress Palestinian terror and watered down State Department proposals that favor Palestinians.
As a result, Bush has called for a Palestinian state in three years but not put forward any plan to restart negotiations. Bush has also demanded that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat be replaced and given wide latitude to Sharon in suppressing Palestinian violence.
In fact, it's hard to find any major area of foreign policy where Powell holds undisputed sway. While expressing frustration in private, he rarely does so publicly. But frequent reports of internal administration rifts have weakened his prestige and persuaded foreign diplomats and observers that they have to listen to more than just his voice to divine American policy.
"Europeans understand that the balance of power within the [Washington] beltway is not in his favor and still favors the Condi-Cheney-Rumsfeld axis," said Josef Joffe, a prominent European commentator and editor of the German weekly Die Zeit.
In Washington, Powell has become a target for some of Bush's core supporters among Christian activists and prominent conservative commentators. In both camps, Powell is seen as overly sympathetic to European governments and autocratic Arab regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Without mentioning Powell by name, House Republican Whip Tom DeLay said recently, "The U.S. State Department would do well to remember that it answers to the president of the United States, not the European Union." William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, an influential conservative journal, wrote that Powell and his deputy Richard L. Armitage "will soon have to decide whom they wish to serve -- the president, or his opponents."
But Hyde, the Illinois congressman, himself a prominent conservative, says the portrayal of Powell as a closet liberal is off-base. "Colin Powell is over the center line on the conservative side," he said, but "his life experiences as a military man commanding troops give him a sometimes more pragmatic approach."
The capstone of those life experiences, at least until Bush tapped him as the nation's first African-American secretary of state, was a stunningly successful military campaign to drive Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait in 1991. This was achieved after the first President Bush agreed to Powell's request for an overwhelming force -- a half-million soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines -- that would be certain of victory.
Powell associates say that if and when the current President Bush gets ready to make military decisions in any new confrontation with Iraq, the secretary will expect to be listened to on war strategy.