Clash of the political titans

They're the heavyweights of US government. And at stake in their bruising power struggle is nothing less than the political future of the world. So who will emerge victorious, Donald Rumsfeld or Colin Powell? Rupert Cornwell reports
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The Independent US

In one sense, it's just another of those government turf wars that Washington political junkies love, but which leave lesser mortals cold – a retired general and a former rough-charging chief executive officer struggling for influence and the ear of their presidential master. Only this turf war should leave no one indifferent.

In one sense, it's just another of those government turf wars that Washington political junkies love, but which leave lesser mortals cold – a retired general and a former rough-charging chief executive officer struggling for influence and the ear of their presidential master. Only this turf war should leave no one indifferent.

Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld are not merely Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense respectively under George W Bush. They are the two most dominating cabinet officers here since Henry Kissinger in his prime. After victory in Iraq, both enjoy approval ratings that outstrip even those of the President. Even had they been in perfect philosophical harmony, their towering reputations alone would probably have ensured that they clashed.

And they have. Not personally, of course, for great figures of state do not stoop to such indignities. But the bureaucracies they head are at war over the future of American foreign policy, which in this era of one all-dominant superpower means something close to the future of the world.

In a testosterone-fuelled Washington, giddy with battlefield triumph, this is the hour of the military, so Rumsfeld vs Powell appears something of a mismatch. There comes to mind the question sarcastically posed by Stalin: "How many divisions has the Pope?" Or as one veteran (and wisely anonymous) US diplomat told the Los Angeles Times: "I just wake up in the morning and tell myself, 'There's been a military coup,' and then it all makes sense."

Anyone who witnessed Rumsfeld's 15,300-mile victory trip to the Gulf and Afghanistan aboard his converted Boeing 757 with "The United States of America" emblazoned on its sides would understand what the diplomat meant. Like an impatient monarch, the Secretary of Defense travelled to seven countries in seven days. "This is diplomacy and I don't do diplomacy, you may have noticed," Rumsfeld told the troops, amid laughter, when he visited Baghdad.

In fact "Rummy" does do diplomacy (albeit of the bull-in-a-china-shop variety), and more of it by the day. It was he who coined the phrase "old Europe" – the first signal of Washington's anger with France and Germany over Iraq. He brandished the threat of extending the war into Syria, and then of using force against North Korea. With his pre-war musings over the US going it alone in Iraq because of Tony Blair's domestic difficulties, he managed the feat of enraging America's best friend.

Wherever you look in Washington, there seems to be a Pentagon policy and a State Department policy. On Iraq, the Pentagon didn't want to go to the United Nations, while the State Department did. (George Bush ultimately backed Powell, but mainly as a sop to Blair.) The Pentagon backs exile leader Ahmed Chalabi to lead a post-Saddam democratic government; State backs anyone but. Rumsfeld says the US will never tolerate an Islamic government in Iraq; State knows that Washington may have to, if it is sincere about wanting to hand Iraq back to the Iraqis. And so it goes on. The Pentagon lines up unequivocally behind Ariel Sharon; State is more sympathetic to the Palestinians.

In short, two world views conflict. Should America, as Colin Powell believes, exercise leadership through the international system and multilateral arrangements? Or do you assume, as Rumsfeld does,that this is a hostile planet, which America should rule by threat and if neccessary by force?

The fault line divides not just the two departments but the think tanks and the Bush administration – even the Bushes père et fils. This President's heart lies with Rumsfeld. But his father and his advisers, an older generation of more gentlemanly policy-makers, such as James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, side with Powell.

Now, however, the Rumsfeld camp has the momentum. "Take Capitol Hill," says Dana Priest, the author of The Mission, a study of how the US military is an empire unto itself. "The Pentagon maintains a large lobbying operation there while, at least until Powell, the State Department has just disdained selling itself." Buttressing Defense is the "iron triangle" of itself, Congress and the big defence contractors, guaranteeing the sun never sets on the Pentagon budget.

Today, that budget is $400bn, roughly 20 cents of every tax dollar, compared to a single cent for State. These huge resources translate not only into weapons, but an apparatus of specialists dwarfing those of conventional diplomacy. The Pentagon divides the world between five regional commanders in chief, whose headquarters resemble colonial administrations. As The Mission notes, the smallest joint command, for Latin America, has a staff of 1,100 – "more people than deal with Latin American matters at the departments of State, Commerce, Treasury and Agriculture and the Pentagon's own joint staff combined".

War has only strengthened the spotlight on the Pentagon. And after the war comes the peacekeeping – but who else can provide the necessary number of competent peacekeepers but America's armies?

Rivalry between the Pentagon and State is nothing new. George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger, secretaries of State and Defense under Ronald Reagan, were for ever at each other's throats. But never, surely, has there been such a heavyweight match-up.

Had Alma Powell not persuaded her hugely popular husband not to run against Bill Clinton back in 1996, Powell might have become the first black President. By dint of his ability, his charm and his life story – the Jamaican immigrant's son who made it to the top – Powell is the rare individual who can exorcise that ancient American demon of race, and make his countrymen feel good about themselves.

As for Rumsfeld, forget about theorising over whether policy in Washington has been hijacked by a neo-conservative clique. It has. And he has powerful allies at every turn. Paul Wolfowitz, his deputy, must be the most influential departmental No 2 of modern times. Then there is Rumsfeld's friendship with Dick Cheney, stretching back almost 30 years to their days in the Ford administration. Today Cheney is arguably the most influential Vice-President in US history, constant counsel to a President who preached foreign policy "humility" during his election campaign, but who has yet to meet the international treaty he doesn't want to rip up.

Rumsfeld is a persistent, nagging micro-manager. He came to the Pentagon determined to re-assert civilian control over a military high commmand that invariably got its way under Clinton. He operates on the bully's principle: when your opponent is down, kick him again, just to make sure.

In the 1970s, when he served as Gerald Ford's White House Chief of Staff and then Defense Secretary, Rumsfeld was the only person to claim Kissinger's scalp in a bureaucratic fight. After his brace of battlefield victories, who would now bet against a third over the Pentagon bureaucracy, revamping the armed forces for a new age of hi-tech, high-mobility warfare, and re-ordering US bases around the world?

But the outcome of the struggle is not pre-ordained, nor are matters quite what they seem. It might appear that Rumsfeld is making all the running. In fact, the State Department, after years of being rolled over by the Pentagon, is staging a fightback. Powell's arrival has not only boosted morale; he is also a top-class Washington operator. As a former general and chairman of the joint chiefs, he knows how the Pentagon works and how to fight its encroachments.

Nothing illustrated the changed reality like the rumpus after the savage critique of the State Department delivered last month by Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker and member of the Pentagon's independent Defense Policy Board. The intemperate Gingrich blamed State for a "colossal diplomatic failure" over Iraq, describing its attempts to win a second Security Council resolution authorising force as "a pathetic public campaign of hand-wringing and desperation". The speech was given to the American Enterprise Institute, a neo-conservative citadel, and the assumption was that the ex-Speaker had been put up to it by "Rummy" and his henchmen. In the pre-Powell era, the incident might have passed without undue fuss, as a typical Gingrich cheap shot. Not now. One senior US ambassador called him "an idiot"; Richard Armitage, Powell's deputy, said Gingrich was "off his meds and out of therapy". The White House too went out of its way to defend the Secretary of State. The message was plain. No longer would State take this sort of thing lying down.

If this epochal turf war were a horserace, a small investment in Colin Powell might be in order. For one thing, the Pentagon is surely about to learn the lesson of invaders through the ages: that smashing enemy armies to pieces is a great deal easier than rebuilding foreign countries and bringing their people to your side.

President Bush's own priorities are starting to shift from military action to the domestic economy, whose performance may yet make or break his 2004 re-election bid. In foreign affairs, the focus is moving away from Iraq and terrorism towards the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, where all the firepower in the world is no substitute for diplomatic skill.

And in political terms, while Bush could live with the departure of Rumsfeld, a Powell resignation today would be a heavy blow to his hopes of winning moderate and independent voters. Yes, even this much caricatured, neo-con-influenced, Christian conservative-leaning President needs the centre to win.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Jesse Helms the bigot is gone, replaced by the wise and State Department-friendly Richard Lugar, the senior Senator from Indiana. And, in his own quiet way, Powell has won some important victories. Syria will not be invaded, and diplomacy remains the preferred American way with North Korea.

And might not Powell and Rumsfeld be two sides of the same coin? After all, they reached a compromise over Paul Bremer, the new civilian boss of Iraq. Could Syria and North Korea have set the model – a "good cop, bad cop" routine, with the Defense Department wielding the stick and the State Department playing the nice guy? Pentagon and State acting in harmony? Now that would give an anxious world even more to worry about.

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