Cometh the hour, cometh the man – Powell steps out of the shadows

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"The President has never needed Colin more than now," said a senior administration official as a shocked and still only half-believing American government started to think about the global implications of the deadliest terrorist attack in modern history, and how the US should respond to it.

Even in such overwhelming tragic circumstances, George Bush's Secretary of State, Colin Powell, might be forgiven a small and bleak smile of satisfaction at those words. For most of the eight months since Mr Bush arrived in Washington, General Powell has more often than not appeared the odd man out; the dove among Republican hawks, the ignored multilateralist in a truculently unilateralist government.

He of all the Bush team was the one who bore the most hopes on his shoulders, both at home and abroad. He was the first African American secretary of state, who would bring the world's attention to its most neglected continent, Africa. He had lived out the most inspirational version of the American Dream imaginable – the child of Jamaican immigrants from the Bronx who became a decorated hero in Vietnam and then rose to the pinnacle of the military establishment.

He had been an exceptional soldier. More important, however, for America's allies, uncertain of how the untested Mr Bush would perform on the world stage, he was a known and trusted quantity – looked to as a 21st-century version of George Marshall, that earlier great soldier who became an even greater secretary of state.

General Powell has an aura which among recent leading US figures only Bill Clinton has rivalled. In 1995 the main topic in Washington was not the latest Clinton scandal, but whether General Powell would run against him for the White House the following year. In the event the possible first black president, largely at the urging of his wife, Alma, decided against. But he was still a towering figure. He once met George Bush back in 1997, when the President was Governor of Texas. "General, Texas is reporting for duty," Bush told him with a salute.

But thus far things haven't worked out like that. On most of the big issues he seemed in a minority of one.

His diplomatic doubts about missile defence were overruled, his overtures to North Korea and "smart sanctions" on Iraq were rebutted by the President. Where people asked, was Powell?

General Powell has had his successes to be sure, not least the revitalisation of morale at the State Department, which had been the invariable loser in struggles for money and influence on Capitol Hill and within successive administrations. This year entry applications at the State Department tripled from 12 months earlier, not least because of General Powell's personal prestige and presence. Otherwise though, his supporters were disappointed at his lack of impact.

Now his hour has come. In the aftermath of Tuesday's atrocities, the US is seeking to line up the world behind it. Coalition-building is the order of the hour – and no one is more honed in that skill than Colin Powell. Leaders, it is said, belong to one of two categories, warriors or conciliators. General Powell, for all his credentials in the first, more naturally belongs in the latter.

Until his roughing up in the early months of the new administration, General Powell was the man who worked whatever institution he was in to perfection. To succeed in politics – and in the scarcely less dangerous corridors of power in the Defence Department, his former stamping ground – you need to be a coalition-builder.

No one knows what sort of coalition Mr Bush is seeking. Will it be a diplomatic arrangement, with the Nato countries at its core but with the participation of countries in the Middle East and Russia? Or is the President after a more literal reconstruction of the Gulf War alliance, which General Powell himself helped put together, in which countries would allocate troops as part of a combined military mission? Either way General Powell, with his prestige, his contacts and his skills at cajoling, will be crucial if the net is to be cast as wide as Mr Bush would like.