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U.S.: As Vice President Cheney's Star Rises, U.S. Analysts Ask, 'Where's Colin Powell?'

  • Jeffrey Donovan

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney has recently taken on a central role as President George W. Bush's key diplomat in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the voice of Secretary of State Colin Powell has grown quiet. Analysts say he may be losing influence on foreign policy as Bush increasingly turns to his trusted and experienced vice president.

Washington, 27 March 2002 (RFE/RF) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is one of the best-known, most popular leaders in Washington. But recently, his role as America's senior diplomat appears to have been overtaken -- for now, at least -- by Vice President Dick Cheney.

The international spotlight was on Cheney during his recent swing through the Middle East, where he visited 10 nations on a tour seen as vital to President George W. Bush's policy in the region.

But while Cheney reportedly sought Arab support for a U.S. military campaign against Iraq and discussed the stalled Middle East peace process, the secretary of state was nowhere to be seen.

What's happened to Colin Powell?

Analysts say that while past secretaries of state have had power struggles with the national security adviser, Powell's predicament with the vice president is unprecedented.

To be sure, no analyst interviewed by RFE/RL suggests Powell is taking a back seat to anyone in the Bush administration. They insist he is being heard, yet acknowledge that Cheney appears for the moment to be the top figure on foreign policy. And that, for a vice president, is highly unusual.

The situation appears set to continue. Although Cheney declined to meet Yasser Arafat during his stopover in Israel earlier this month, the vice president held out the possibility of a future meeting with the Palestinian leader provided he cracks down on the violence. In other words, the "carrot" of incentive here is a prestigious meeting with Cheney -- not Powell.

Bush himself underscored the importance of Cheney's role after the vice president's return from the Mideast. Bush, who has repeatedly said that the U.S.-led war on terrorism will continue beyond Afghanistan, told reporters at the White House last week: "We understand that history has called us into action, and we are not going to miss this opportunity to make the world more peaceful and more free, and the vice president delivered that message. I was grateful that he was able to do so. It is very important for these leaders to understand the nature of this administration so there is no doubt in their mind that when we speak, we mean what we say."

Ivo Daalder is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a leading Washington think tank. Daalder, who served on the National Security Council of former President Bill Clinton, believes Bush first chose Cheney as his running mate because of Cheney's deep experience in government and international affairs -- which Bush, a former governor of the southern state of Texas, lacked.

Cheney was secretary of defense in the administration of Bush's father, overseeing the 1990-91 Gulf War against Iraq. His contacts with the oil-producing countries of the Middle East deepened in the 1990s when he became chief executive of Halliburton, a large Texas energy firm.

Because of those qualities, Daalder says Cheney is unlike almost any other U.S. vice president in history. By dispatching Cheney to the Arab world, Daalder says Bush wanted to lend what was seen as a key diplomatic effort even more prestige and authority than it would have had under Powell.

"The signal that was being sent was that the president thinks this is very important. The vice president is about as close as you can get to the president. And by sending a vice president, you are sending the message that the [vice] president is the White House, therefore, the United States is very interested in what is being said here. The message is: 'Listen up. This is the president of the United States speaking.' "

Cheney's rise has partly eclipsed Powell's position, according to Ted Galen Carpenter, an analyst with the Cato Institute, another Washington think tank: "I think it overshadows him, certainly. And it's probably a bit demoralizing to Powell and the permanent officials in the State Department."

Carpenter sees a healthy debate in the White House -- a polite, three-way struggle for influence between Powell, Cheney, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. He believes Cheney, Rice, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld often agree with each other and are more "hawkish" than Powell.

The secretary of state is generally seen as having a more moderate voice and has argued all along for deeper U.S. involvement in the Middle East peace process -- a stance that has only recently been adopted by a Bush administration reportedly keen on winning Arab support for military action against Iraq.

A former general who presided over the Gulf War as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- the top U.S. military position -- Powell is also seen as more reluctant to take on President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, whom Bush accuses of seeking weapons of mass destruction. Cheney, Rice, and Rumsfeld are reportedly much more eager about pursuing Saddam's ouster.

While it is not unusual for a vice president to influence policy, Carpenter sees Cheney as having almost rewritten his job description: "There have been struggles before between the National Security Council staff and the State Department. There have even been some struggles before between the State Department and the Defense Department. But I think this may be the first time that the vice president's office has played a major role. Usually, the vice president is little more than a political figurehead. In this case, however, Vice President Cheney appears to have a great influence on policy."

But neither Carpenter nor Daalder believe the current struggle for influence inside the White House approaches the level of past conflicts that have erupted into public displays of discontent.

Among the most famous was a row in the administration of Richard Nixon, whose National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger clearly held the upper hand over Secretary of State Walter Rogers. After four years of public struggle, Nixon finally solved the issue by appointing Kissinger secretary of state in 1973.

And during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance often openly disagreed about policy. Vance's chief bone of contention was that he was kept out of policy-making deliberations. He finally resigned after being excluded from an ill-fated decision -- which he disagreed with -- to use the military to try to free American hostages being held in Iran in 1980.

The analysts see no such conflicts over exclusion in the current White House. And if Powell's star has waned, it is perhaps only temporary. Carpenter says Powell's voice is never far from Bush's ear, adding: "One should never underestimate Powell. He is a fighter, and he's a survivor."

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