America - Andrew Stephen

Colin Powell, the loyal soldier, stays at his post but is now totally isolated within the Bush admin

It was still sunny at 11pm last Monday when Colin Powell flew in to Reykjavik for a Nato meeting. "I think things are starting to move along in a somewhat positive direction," the US secretary of state said of the Middle East. But, he added: "I've learned to control my optimism."

As well he might. These days Powell, now 65, is fighting more battles in Washington than he did in his 35 years in the US army; the internecine warfare within the Bush administration is such that Powell is now fighting adversaries even within his own State Department. Just before former president Jimmy Carter went to Cuba on 12 May, for example, an undersecretary of state named John Bolton briefed reporters that Cuba was producing biological weapons. It was a clear attempt to overshadow Carter's visit. But not only did Carter denounce Bolton's assertions, Powell himself was forced to "clarify" matters: "We didn't say it [Cuba] actually had some weapons, but it has the capacity and capability to conduct such research," he said, in a clear repudiation of his own man.

On US talk radio, Powell is now openly derided as a laughably weak wimp; one fashionable morning-show host named Don Imus speculated whether he wears panties. This is because, in an era when the US is becoming more insular and hysterically triumphalist than ever, Powell is aware of an outside world. He goes against the grain of life in Washington because he also knows that the US, as the world superpower, still needs that outside world to function effectively.

Powell would almost certainly have resigned by now, had he not been imbued with his Jamaican parents' ethos and the old soldier's tradition that you do not desert your post when your own side is in disarray.

I have reported here before that Paul Wolfowitz, the US deputy defence secretary, told friends privately that his main job in the Bush administration would be to "neutralise" Powell - a job that the veteran hawk (particularly when it comes to war with Iraq) has done with alacrity. Last month, on the very day Powell was in Jerusalem calling on Ariel Sharon to withdraw troops from the West Bank, Wolfowitz spoke at a pro-Israel rally organised to urge Tel Aviv to do the precise opposite; repeatedly on his peacemaking tour of the Middle East, Powell had the rug pulled from under him, most especially when Ari Fleischer, George W Bush's chief spokesman, declared that "the president believes that Ariel Sharon is a man of peace".

Even when Powell announces that there will soon be a "conference" about peace in the Middle East, he is publicly contradicted by the White House: officials insist that it will be a "meeting" rather than a "conference". But Powell has stuck to his guns in an administration now almost totally won over to Sharon. "We cannot stay in this position of enmity for ever," he said in Reykjavik of the Israel-Palestine situation, "with these people living in an occupied state and having no right to a state of their own."

But what is most interesting about the undermining of Powell in Jerusalem is that Wolfowitz was sent to the pro-Israel rally by Karl Rove, a balding, overweight Texan who is now Bush's closest political adviser. An article in last Monday's New York Times detailed Rove's power over foreign affairs. It was a Powell-inspired effort to fight back against his enemies within; he sees Rove and Andy Card, Bush's chief of staff, as insinuating themselves into foreign affairs although they have little knowledge or expertise, and have to advise a weak, ill-informed president. Two months ago, for example, Rove pushed Bush towards imposing huge tariffs on imported steel from Europe, Japan and China; the objective is to protect the jobs of steelworkers in industrial states that will be crucial in the midterm elections this November. (It rarely occurs to Americans that such actions hardly show a commitment to free-market forces, but we will let that pass.)

Here we come to perhaps the most sinister aspect of the bad-mouthing of Powell: that Rove considers the US role in foreign affairs, and in wars where necessary, to be an instrument of domestic politics.

Powell was furious when Rove told a Republican Party assembly in Texas that GOP activists should use the war in Afghanistan for political advantage. Indeed, Republican strategists such as Rove hope that the Bush administration's supine support for Israel - minus Colin Powell - could bring about a seismic shift in US politics: that the Jewish vote, traditionally Democrat, can be seduced away.

This is particularly so, they think, in New York (which has more Jews than Israel) and in Florida, where Kid Brother Jeb is fighting for survival as governor. So spare a thought for the loyal soldier Powell, stuck in an administration from which he cannot resign but which is now almost unanimously opposed to everything he says and does.

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