Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, has made clear his intention not to serve a second term if President George Bush is re-elected, it was claimed yesterday.
The report immediately triggered feverish speculation as to who would replace General Powell as America's most senior diplomat.
Having endured battles with hawks in the Bush administration, General Powell, 66, has reportedly decided to stand down in January 2005.
If true, General Powell's decision would not be a huge surprise to Washington insiders. There have been previous reports that he only ever intended to serve one term. But the timing of the report leaving him with another 17 months to serve has opened up a debate over who would replace him and the nature of a second Bush administration without him.
"I think people had assumed [he would not serve a second term]," said David Corn, political editor of The Nation magazine. "From his perspective, what is in it for him? He will have done the job for four years, he has disagreed with some of the policy though not enough to quit. Why would he stick it out? He would not get any more out of it."
Still, General Powell yesterday dismissed the report in The Washington Post. "I don't know what they are talking about," he said in an interview with Radio Sawa, a US-supported network that broadcasts in the Arab world. "I serve at the pleasure of the President. The President and I have not discussed anything other than my continuing to do my job for him.
"This is just one of those stories that emerge in Washington that reflects nothing more than gossip, and the gossip leads to a rash of speculation about who might fill a vacancy that does not exist."
President Bush's spokesman said of Mr Powell: "The President thinks he is doing an outstanding job and appreciates the job that he is doing."
The retired general became America's first black secretary of state when joined the Bush administration in January 2001, having previously served as deputy national security adviser and national security adviser for Ronald Reagan and George Bush Snr. He was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bill Clinton.
But the easy-going General Powell's enthusiasm to serve has been tempered by the sometimes ferocious battles he has endured with hawkish elements in the administration, most notably the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. Earlier this year, after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, relations between the two men reached a low point and their staffs were engaged in a wide-ranging battle of leak and counter-leak designed to hurt the other.
In this environment it is understandable that General Powell might feel content to keep the promise he reportedly made to his wife, Alma, not to serve a second term. It is widely held that he only agreed not to make a run for the presidency, in 1996 and 2000, because he had promised his wife not to. The State Department denied the Post's report. It also dismissed the newspaper's claim that his deputy, Richard Armitage, had passed on the news to the National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, in a recent conversation, telling her that they would both step down on 21 January 2005, the day after the next presidential inauguration.
Philip Reeker, a State Department spokesman, said: "This is gossip and rumour. There was no conversation between [Mr Armitage] and Ms Rice concerning any plans to step down."
But Washington was abuzz with speculation over a possible successor to General Powell, with most attention focused on Ms Rice and Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Defence Secretary. Of the two, Ms Rice's close personal relationship with President Bush is seen to give her a slight advantage, though in recent weeks she has suffered criticism for her role in controversy surrounding the administration's use of false evidence as it sought to make the case for war against Iraq.
President Bush recently named Ms Rice as his personal representative on efforts to secure a Middle East peace settlement a move that some State Department officials viewed as an audition for secretary of state and described her as "an honest, fabulous person, and America is lucky to have her service".
What seems clear is that without General Powell and his instinct to seek consensus with other countries, a second Bush administration would undergo a noticeable shift in stance and policy.
With Ms Rice or Mr Wolfowitz assuming the job, the hawks would dominate foreign policy. This would be exacerbated by the likely departure of many senior officials appointed by General Powell within the State Department.
He has always declined to respond to speculation about how long he plans to stay in the job but he has made clear that he has many interests beyond government service.Reuse content