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Colin Powell's Job Gets Harder And Harder

by Jim Lobe

Neo-Cons Launch Attack On Colin Powell And Diplomacy
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- What a thankless job Colin Powell has.

Arriving in Riyadh on Tuesday, May 13 after several days of frustrating talks with the leaders of Israel, Egypt and the Palestinians, he had probably looked forward to a day of relative relaxation and perhaps less tension-filled talks with senior Saudi officials.

Instead, he was whisked off to the scene of deadly suicide bombings in an expatriate neighborhood just a few hours before, where at least 20 people, including seven U.S. citizens, were killed.

"Terrorism strikes everywhere and everyone," he told reporters at the scene. "It is a threat to the civilized world."

As befitted the scene, Powell looked grim, but his expression could as well have summed up his feelings about his broader efforts to take back some control over key areas of foreign policy where triumphalist hawks at the Pentagon and in Vice President Dick Cheney's office are pressing their own agenda.

Powell thought he had made some major inroads in the last few weeks, particularly in Iraq where the hawks' designated overseer, former Gen. Jay Garner, apparently proved unequal to the task and was replaced by former Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, a counter-terrorism expert and a hardliner to be sure but also someone who appreciates the art of diplomacy and is expected to work constructively with America's allies and the United Nations.

But the hawks exacted their price -- the ouster of the State Department's top official in Baghdad, Ambassador Barbara Bodine, whose complaints about the military's failure to establish order on the capital's streets were a little too blunt for the U.S. Central Command. As a veteran of the Department's Near East Bureau, Bodine had long been targeted as too "pro-Arab" by the neo-conservatives in the Pentagon and Cheney's office.

Similarly, Powell has put up a stronger than expected fight on Iran in the past two weeks. On the fate of the Mujahadeen e-Khalq, an Iraq-based Iranian rebel group on the State Department's international terrorist list, the Department prevailed over the Pentagon's objections in demanding that it be disarmed.

And, despite a strong campaign launched last week by neo-conservatives and Christian Right lawmakers against any move to negotiate with the Islamic Republic of Iran, Bush has given the OK for Powell to continue informal talks with Tehran's diplomats in Geneva that were quietly initiated several months ago.

But on the two issues that Powell now considers his top priorities -- the successful launch of the so-called "road map" that is supposed to result in the creation of an independent and viable Palestinian state within two years and the peaceful resolution of the nuclear crisis in North Korea -- Powell is facing strong opposition, both among the key foreign players and from administration hawks.

The secretary had clearly hoped that this week's trip through the region, particularly his talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, would inject some momentum into the road map process, which is backed by the European Union, the United Nations and Russia, as well as Washington.

But it was not only Tuesday's bombing in Riyadh that dampened any sense that the process had indeed reached the take-off stage.

Powell found Sharon unexpectedly inflexible, refusing to endorse the principle of the road map, even if such an endorsement included well-known Israeli reservations about the two parties carrying out the plan's steps simultaneously.

Instead, Sharon announced the release of about 180 of more than 1,000 Palestinian detainees, pledged to permit more Palestinians to work in Israel in the coming weeks and scheduled a meeting with Abbas on Friday. While Powell praised the steps as helpful, they failed to impress other observers, particularly Abbas and other Arab observers.

In fact, Sharon may have been quietly encouraged not to be more forthcoming by Powell's opponents back home. In a direct rebuff to the secretary, the pro-Israel lobby combined with Christian Right forces, no doubt with the silent backing of pro-Likud hard-liners in the Pentagon, to persuade the House of Representatives to approve legislation that essentially rewrites the road map.

It would require the Palestinian Authority (PA) to halt terrorism and enact far-reaching political reforms before Israel is required to do anything at all under the plan. The implicit threat in the provision is that Congress will withhold U.S. aid to the PA, if the administration does not go along.

Perhaps even more damaging was the visit to Israel just before Powell's arrival there of two senior National Security Council officials, Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and Elliott Abrams, the controversial director for Middle East and North Africa, for secret talks with Sharon.

While the White House insisted that the trip was simply exploratory in nature, Abrams reportedly assured Sharon that Bush would not threaten to withhold aid or take other strong sanctions to press Israel into going along with the road map. The fact that the two men met with Sharon on the same day that the United States and its Quartet partners formally delivered the plan to the two parties served only to underlined the ways in which Powell has been undercut.

It remains possible that Bush will come out in strong support of the plan, as Powell will no doubt urge him to do, when Sharon meets the president at the White House early next week. But the auguries, according to specialists here, are not good.

As for Korea, Powell is clearly hoping that this week's talks here between Bush and visiting South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun will boost prospects for continuing trilateral talks between Washington, North Korea and China aimed at persuading Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear programmes and easing tensions on the peninsula.

But the hawks, aided by Pyongyang's latest provocations, including its nullification Monday of a 1992 agreement to keep the peninsula nuclear-free, are clearly on the attack on this front as well.

Monday's 'New York Times' featured an article based on an interview with an unnamed "senior Defense Department official" who suggested that Washington is preparing plans to "decapitate" the North Korean regime as it did in Iraq.

"We are committed to bringing the same improvements in military war-fighting capability to Korea that we brought to Iraq this time," the official said in what was clearly an attempt to intimidate the North.

And on Tuesday, the day before the scheduled meeting between Bush and Roh, the rightist 'Washington Times' disclosed that North Korea's military had fired a laser weapon at two U.S. Army helicopters in the demilitarized zone in March, in what the newspaper's sources called a "provocative action." The reporter on the story, Bill Gertz, is a frequent recipient of leaks from hard-line defense officials.

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Albion Monitor May 13, 2003 (

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