It was 44 hours into the bombardment of Iraq. In a top-security room at the Pentagon, the Commander-in-Chief wanted some answers. Surrounded by a council of top military advisers, a stern-faced George Bush was firing off questions faster than Tomahawk missiles. How much damage had Saddam Hussein's forces sustained? What remained of Iraq's air defenses? And what were U. S. plans for handling the surrender of demoralized Iraqi units that might lay down arms?
Typically, General Colin L. Powell remained unflappable. For each urgent Presidential query, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had a calm, precise answer. Finally, after a half-hour of intense questioning, Bush abruptly rose and broke the tension when he deadpanned: "Hey, I'm going to have do more micromanaging of this thing." The room erupted in laughter.
No one laughed harder than Powell, the ice-cool strategist who had spent the previous five months meticulously preparing for war and who was now enjoying the first flush of success. While no one expected the first rounds of Desert Storm to lead to a quick, painless knockout of Iraq, the President made one thing clear from the very start: He plans to stick with Colin Powell as his chief operating officer in managing one of history's most complex military undertakings.
FREE HAND. Never has the U. S. fought such a war, but neither has the nation had a military manager quite like Powell. Bush has so much faith in the 53-year-old ROTC grad from the South Bronx that he handed Powell unfettered power not seen since Franklin Roosevelt gave Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall a free hand in running World War II.
The only chairman of the Joint Chiefs with prior service in a top White House job, Powell has the political instincts of a salon diplomat. Those skills could prove crucial to keeping domestic politics from hindering Desert Storm, as it did the military's effort in Vietnam. The question is: Will all of Powell's savvy be enough? For after a week of unrelenting air attacks--double the bomb tonnage dropped on Germany in all of 1944--the Iraqi military still appears to be largely intact.
The U. S. estimates that more than 400 Iraqi combat aircraft may remain operational. And Saddam's ability to keep lobbing missiles has put Americans on notice that victory will not be quick or easy. When another Scud missile hit Tel Aviv on Jan. 22, resulting in three deaths and scores of injuries, alarms sounded anew of possible Israeli retaliation that could strain the Arab-Western alliance.
Amid all this, Powell's mission is to prove Bush right when he vows that the gulf war won't be another Vietnam. His military doctrine is simple: "Strike suddenly, decisively, and in sufficient force to resolve the matter. Do it quickly, and do it with minimum loss of life."
That formula worked easily in Panama, the first major operation he led as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. After Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, Powell urged Bush to send troops to the region immediately. After an October visit with soldiers in Saudi Arabia, he advised Bush to double the number of troops in response to an Iraqi buildup along the Saudi border.
The complicated maneuvering plays to Powell's strengths. Says former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger: "It is very clear that Powell has a sophisticated understanding of the political underpinnings of any military operation." In the months leading up to the outbreak of war on Jan. 16, Powell crisscrossed Europe and the Mideast, coordinating military preparations with his counterparts. As he went, he built an integrated command structure that met the political and military needs of the tenuous Western-Arab coalition. "In World War II, it took some time to get Allied cooperation going," says British General John Akehurst, former deputy supreme commander of NATO. "This time, the air and naval forces have been perfectly coordinated."
WIDE LATITUDE. All allied commanders in the Persian Gulf theater report to H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the burly Army general who is commander-in-chief of Desert Storm. In the field, however, there's an international command. For example, the British Royal Air Force pilots who use their low-flying Tornado bombers to crater Iraqi runways fly under the U. S. Air Force. When the expected ground war begins, U. S. Marines on the Kuwait front will get their orders from a British general. And Powell has taken pains to soothe Arab sensitivities by establishing a chain of command for Egyptian, Saudi, Moroccan, and Syrian forces under Saudi Lieutenant General Khalid bin Sultan.
Powell's clout is also enhanced by institutional changes in Washington. A 1986 law formally designated the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as the President's top military adviser, giving him the power to speak independently of the service chiefs. The legislation also made the Joint Chiefs' 1,600-person staff responsible directly to the chairman. The result is that the gulf war may be the first large-scale conflict in which the chairman's hands aren't tied by the veto power of rival service chiefs. "The changes have enhanced the authority of the chairman's job, making it much more productive," says former Defense Secretary Harold Brown.
But Bush's unswerving confidence in Powell may be the general's greatest strength. Unlike Lyndon B. Johnson, who micromanaged the Vietnam war to the extent of picking bombing targets, Bush relies on Powell to set the pace and direction of the war. And unlike LBJ's meddling Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, Pentagon boss Dick Cheney--who was a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee while Powell served as President Reagan's National Security Adviser--gives his hand-picked chairman wide latitude. "They are cut from the same cloth," says Howard H. Baker Jr., who served as Ronald Reagan's Chief of Staff.
Powell is part of a military-political team in which each player knows his task well. When Iraqi missiles began hitting Tel Aviv, for instance, Bush turned to telephone diplomacy to urge restraint on Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Secretary of State James A. Baker III then dispatched his deputy, Lawrence S. Eagleburger, to Jerusalem to reassure the Shamir government.
FAST TRACK. If Powell seems unrattled in this pressure cooker, that's because he's as much a product of Washington's Machiavellian politics as he is a military man. As a White House fellow in 1972, then-Lieutenant Colonel Powell worked in the Office of Management & Budget. There he caught the eyes of his superiors, Caspar W. Weinberger and Frank C. Carlucci, both of whom would later head the Pentagon under Reagan. The fast track brought this son of Jamaican immigrants to top postings at the Pentagon, where he helped procure weapons for the massive 1981-84 military buildup. And as National Security Adviser--the first black in that position--he was instrumental in forging arms control agreements with the Soviet Union.
But Powell is far more than a Beltway commando and bristles at being called a political general. He won a Bronze Star and Purple Heart in two tours of duty as an infantry officer in Vietnam. And he climbed the chain of command from platoon leader to a corps command in Germany to commander of all forces in the continental U. S. One of the few chairmen of the Joint Chiefs who didn't graduate from West Point or Annapolis, Powell studied geology at the City College of New York and holds an MBA from George Washington University. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Vietnam vet and former prisoner of war, calls Powell "the finest military officer this nation has produced since World War II."
His protests notwithstanding, Powell is a political operator par excellence. He lectures every new group of generals that they must understand not only military doctrine but the role politics and public relations play in achieving military objectives. Many think he has the makings of an elected official. When GOP strategists are asked how high Powell could go in politics, they get a dreamy look that indicates it could be very high indeed.
Still, between Powell and a bright political future stands the gritty reality of the war. The first week looked easy, with coalition air forces meeting little opposition. But Iraqi troops are dug in and protected from air attack. That's why the U. S. is intensifying efforts to isolate the Iraqi army in Kuwait. "First we're going to cut it off," says Powell. "And then we're going to kill it."
The onset of ground fighting will be the true test of Powell's doctrine of irresistible force. Some analysts believe Powell has already violated his own philosophy by opting to wait for the buildup in the gulf, giving Saddam time to hunker down, hide his aircraft, and consolidate his forces. Says Alan Sabrosky, former research director for the U. S. Army War College: "The U. S. is faced with a war in which we may suffer unnecessarily high losses" because of Powell's preoccupation with moving large numbers of troops into the region.
Back home, the war is also taking a turn for the worse. The euphoria of the opening strike has faded. And despite Powell's vaunted public relations skills, the Pentagon is tempting a media backlash by withholding all but the most sanitized dispatches from the front. "They are going to discover that, unless they give the press something to chew on, the press gets restless," says Schlesinger.
Don't think Powell isn't figuring every angle. At the Command & General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., one case study Powell pored over was the 1916 Battle of the Somme, probably the bloodiest battle in history. The British shelled the Germans continuously for seven days, thinking that no infantry could survive the assault. But when the British foot soldiers attacked, the Germans rose up out of their bunkers and fought to a standoff that claimed over a million casualties.
Powell isn't about to send U. S. troops into a meat grinder like the Somme. But for all the complex technological, political, and diplomatic planning Powell has done, the crucial battles of the Iraq war are likely to be fought by foot soldiers, tank crews, and artillerymen on an open battlefield. On the outcome of this gigantic battle rests the spit-and-polish reputation of Colin Powell--and the fate of the Bush Presidency.