Walking Back into a War: Containing Saddam Isn't Colin Powell's Only Worry. He Also Has to Fight the Hard-Liners in Washington

Article excerpt

It was the biggest accomplishment of his first solo trip abroad, but Secretary of State Colin Powell didn't seem triumphant. Traveling to Damascus at a time when the United States has few friends in the Arab world, Powell extracted a pledge from Syrian leader Bashar Assad to plug the gap Assad's nation had opened in U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq. Syria would no longer pay Saddam directly for Iraqi oil (the money would go to a U.N. escrow account instead). In return, Washington would drop most of the trade embargo against Iraq, banning only military and some "dual use" items--consumer goods with a military application. "Very interesting," said Assad, the young, lanky son of former Syrian dictator Hafez Assad. "We've been telling you [to do] that for two years." Powell smiled, but his mood seemed as restrained as the Syrian pledge. "These are not decisions I make on my own," he told Assad. Then Powell joked, somewhat wistfully, "It was different when I was a general."

Was it ever. Ten years ago, when Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all he had to do was to oust Iraq's Army from Kuwait. Now he faces a battle on several fronts as he tries to revive some semblance of the U.N. sanctions regime that has penned in Saddam Hussein for a decade. First he must outgame the Iraqi leader, who has turned himself into an Arab folk hero while scouring world markets for parts to build weapons of mass destruction. As Powell noted in an interview, the restrictions on dealing with Iraq have grown so loose that Saddam "is getting more money now than he was getting in 1990." He said Saddam's smuggling revenues are about $2 billion annually--roughly double previous estimates. "We're cleaning up the battlefield," Powell said of his new approach.

But Powell faces a tough fight on another front, in Washington. …