Why isn't he president?


WASHINGTON -- A revealing moment came on the day after Colin L. Powell's impressive (whether you agreed with all of it or not) United Nations presentation on the dangers posed by Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

In a Senate hearing, ranking Democrat Joseph Biden of Delaware began his questioning of Mr. Powell by taking a moment to nominate the secretary of state "for president of the United States."

Mr. Biden had said aloud what countless minds were thinking.

As Jay Leno remarked on his late-night show, watching Mr. Powell's speech made you wonder, "Why isn't he president?"

Indeed, an abundant number of powerful people in both parties have tried to persuade Mr. Powell to run for president. I wish he would do it, if only to prove one way or another whether the country is ready to hand the big job to a black man.

But it does not appear likely to happen. His wife, Alma Powell, revealed her fears for her husband's life in a 1996 Ladies' Home Journal interview and her fears are widely believed to be his principal reason for avoiding a presidential run. Instead, we have the consolation prize of watching him help guide the nation's foreign policy, if not as captain, then as first mate.

I am relieved that Mr. Powell has President Bush's ear. As our great ship of state sails through choppy seas in these uncertain times, it's a relief to see Mr. Powell's steady hand near the wheel, if not directly upon it.

We need such reassurances now because, with President Bush getting the military machinery in place to invade Iraq, it is not the ousting of Saddam Hussein that I'm worried about as much as the questions of what comes afterward.

Toppling Mr. Hussein leaves big questions about who and what replaces him, questions the administration has been reluctant to answer with much detail. If President Bush has abandoned his opposition as a candidate to "nation building," fine. Unfortunately, his silence on the matter gives the unsettling impression that he has not really thought about it much.

The same goes for his silence on the larger questions of defeating al-Qaida terrorism, healing relations with our allies and shaping new relationships with Iran and North Korea.

Mr. Bush is a man of simple virtues and few words. That can be charming in a national leader but unsettling in a complicated world. In our post-9/11 era, a leader should show some self-reflection, not just platitudes.

Remember Mr. Bush's "crusade" against "the evildoers," especially the "axis of evil" and Osama bin Laden, whom he wanted "dead or alive," or his pledge to disarm Iraq even if we have to "go it alone"? Such hairy-chested talk may go over big on talk radio but it sounds a bit frantic to the rest of the world, including our allies.

After waves of such grandstanding, Mr. Powell enters like the administration's cleanup man, whether to re-establish talks with North Korea or to smooth ruffled feathers in NATO.

Fortunately, we have not been hearing Mr. Bush talk like a cross between a lonely cowboy and a caped crusader lately. Instead, he's talking about working with the United Nations or "a coalition of the willing." The shift toward diplomacy bears Mr. Powell's fingerprints.

So far, the administration is in a better position because of his approach. If war does happen, it is more likely with Mr. Powell's approach to happen with the cooperation of a community of nations, not on the impulse of one big, restless nation.

I used to wonder why Mr. Powell, after passing up a possible run for president, asked to be secretary of state instead of secretary of defense. I have since realized how much his Vietnam experience taught him the importance of the people back here in Washington who send our young men and women off to war. Indeed, the most important battles often are those that are fought to avoid war.

With that in mind, I commend the president for listening to Mr. Powell's advice. It is comforting to know that we have the sort of president that our secretary of state can be proud of.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at cpage@tribune.com.

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