WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell defended President Bush's policy of pre-emption against countries that threatened the United States and in an interview Friday played down talk of tensions with American allies in Europe as squabbling among friends.
At a time when the Bush administration has begun making the case to foreign leaders for why President Saddam Hussein of Iraq should be ousted, Powell argues that the United States has been unfairly characterized as unilateralist and opposed to treaties.
Powell, in an interview aboard his plane on his way back from Africa, said Friday that he disagreed that the president's embrace of the idea of pre-emptive strikes against enemy threats was a departure from traditional policy.
"Pre-emption has always been available as a tool of foreign policy or military doctrine," he said. He said, however, that since Sept. 11 the policy of pre-emption - or prevention, as he sometimes calls it - has "risen in the hierarchy of options a bit" because of the devastating threats posed by terrorists.
"It must be used with great care and judiciousness and with a clear understanding of the obligations that we have as a responsible member of the international community," he said.
Powell looked confident as he prepared for a new round of diplomacy aimed at ousting Hussein. He said he did not feel isolated within the administration and had not been the target of criticism by more hawkish Cabinet colleagues for encouraging President Bush to build international support for the campaign against terrorism.
"I get all the support that I need from my colleagues in the administration, and I certainly get all the support I need from the president," he said.
To convince the American public and the international community that the campaign against terrorism must be sustained, Powell said the administration would argue that the United States is engaged in a "different kind of war" against an enemy that will not be vanquished with "one Tomahawk strike or one battle."
"It may be a war of diplomacy as we get friends who rally to the campaign, to make sure they stay with it," he said. "It may be a war of politics, where you make sure people understand in other countries that if you want to be part of this great coalition, it may cost you politically, but we are expecting you to do that.
"We are paying occasionally a political price to do what we think is right, and we hope that you will do the same thing."
Sept. 11 changed the nature of American diplomacy, Powell said, by showing the need "to break the old model of superpower conflict, where everything was measured against this chessboard of the red side of the map and the blue side of the map, communism vs. democracy."
He said the terrorist attacks shattered Cold War assumptions about America's relations with China and Russia, opening the door to cooperation among rivals against a shared enemy: terrorists seeking biological and nuclear weapons.
"Here was something that had nothing to do with any of the old Cold War models," he said. "Here was an enemy that affected us all."
Addressing criticism of America as a global bully, he said: "Our record and our history is not one of going out looking for conflict, it is not one of undertaking pre-emptive acts for the purpose of seizing another person's territory, or to impose our will on someone else. Our history and our tradition is always one of defending our interest."
But in a reference to the possibility of attacking Iraq, he defended the policy of pre-emptive action. "Sometimes, if we can defend those interests even before most of the world recognizes those interests are being threatened, then I think it is a tool that should be available to the president," he said.