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Published: Sunday, 8/10/2003

The sharks are circling

Secretary of State Colin Powell, perhaps the most respected Cabinet officer in the Bush Administration, has been subjected to a serious political hatchet job, but he appears to have survived it. He could best be described at this point as bloodied but unbowed.

What happened was that somebody floated a rumor that Mr. Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, had stated or hinted that they did not plan to serve in President Bush's second administration, if there is one. Mr. Powell and Mr. Armitage have since denied having said or intimated any such thing.

But the report had two immediate effects. The first, probably the one intended by the perpetrators, was that Mr. Powell's political and policy credibility was damaged. Even the mention of lame-duck status automatically debilitates its holder as a spontaneous countdown begins on his departure.

Further, if Mr. Powell were to one day resign over a policy dispute or political in-fighting within the administration, the impact of any such resignation has now effectively been reduced.

That may be what is behind the ongoing struggle between Bush Administration neo-conservatives and those like Mr. Powell who subscribe to a more measured set of policies. Two current examples of issues on which such scrapping is taking place are the wisdom of negotiations with the North Koreans on their nuclear program and the idea of reducing U.S. aid to Israel to influence its approach to building a wall across the West Bank.

The other phenomenon that occurs the minute that one of these Cabinet positions looks like it might open up is that names of possible successors appear. Sometimes the names that pop up serve to single out those who might have floated the rumors of departure in the first place. In the case of Mr. Powell, the names of three possible successors were quickly floated.

The first was Paul Wolfowitz, currently Deputy Secretary of Defense to Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Given that Mr. Wolfowitz is a neo-conservative and the rivalry within the Bush Administration between Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Powell is well known, there is some reason to believe that Mr. Wolfowitz would like the job and that Mr. Rumsfeld would like for him to have it.

The second name splashing around was that of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Ms. Rice has taken some flack over the weapons of mass destruction affair, but given her close relationship with Mr. Bush, she seems likely to stay where she is in this administration.

The third name was former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who has been gunning for Mr. Powell and the State Department for months. It is hard to imagine that, given the disrepute surrounding Mr. Gingrich, anyone other than the man himself could take the possibility seriously.

So, for now, Mr. Powell seems to have survived to fight another day. But his vulnerability was underscored. It is also clear that in spite of the impression the Bush Administration tries to give of a tight formation, the sharks circling around it don't swim very deep.



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