It is easy to forget what life was like before 11 September 2001. That morning, Colin Powell was breakfasting in Lima with the president of Peru when he was handed the ever-theatrical piece of paper; and life for him, more than for anybody else in the Bush administration, changed dramatically. It took ten hours before he was able to talk to his boss, who was shuttling haplessly around America on the frantic advice of the secret service. By the Friday of that week, Powell had helicoptered into Camp David where he met a traumatised war council of George Bush, the vice-president Dick Cheney, the defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the national security adviser Condoleezza Rice - and from then on, America's first black secretary of state had manoeuvred himself into becoming a vital member of Washington's inner war cabinet.
It seems natural, now, that that should be so. But until the 11 September atrocities, Powell was the most buffeted member of the administration; there were even hints that he might resign. He had suffered humiliation after humiliation from the new, devil-may-care unilateralism of the Bush hardliners: over the US refusal to abide by the Kyoto Protocol or the ABM treaty, and over North Korea and the Balkans. A US news magazine asked on its cover: "Where have you gone, Colin Powell?", so distant did Powell seem from the chords being struck by the 43rd president and his administration. If anyone did not fit in, it was Powell.
There is a sense in which this is still so in Washington. For every piece of kudos that Powell has gained overseas for his painstaking negotiations over the United Nations Security Council resolution 1441 on Iraq, so there is private eye-rolling and muted criticism of him within the Bush administration. The world thanks Powell for seeing to it that UN inspectors have a critical say in Iraq; increasingly, the Bushite hardliners see Powell's work as standing in the way of unilateral action against Iraq. Powell is secure in his position and is politically unsackable, but there are many in Washington who wish he had kept the 150 phone calls he made in implementing 1441 to himself - and who see him, primarily, as a sell-out to meddling foreigners who deserve no say.
When you look back over his career, it is not surprising that Powell has managed to rise to the occasion in the past 15 months. He is the subject of more than 20 books. He has been close to four presidents, and of the seven positions on the National Security Council he has held three: as national security adviser under Ronald Reagan, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the first Bush (and then briefly Clinton), and now as secretary of state. He is not one of the world's great thinkers or analysts, though in an administration not noted for its erudition, he likes to toss in the names of von Clausewitz or Thucydides to back up whichever military ethos of the moment (all-out war or military restraint) he is embracing. But he is superb at preparing for meetings and marshalling his arguments, and then at presenting points crisply and with an authority that is hard to dispute.
The first thing that strikes you about Powell close-up is his age: though he could easily pass for ten years younger on television, he will be 65 next April. He attributes the high authority that comes naturally to him to his Jamaican parentage. He was born in Harlem and raised in the Bronx, but, unlike so many US blacks, he does not carry the burden of slavery. Speaking of his race and attitude to whites, he told the New Yorker: "One, I don't shove it in their face, you know? I don't bring any stereotypes or threatening visage to their presence. Some black people do. Two, I can overcome any stereotypes or reservations they have, because I perform well. Third thing is, I ain't that black."
Bush's nickname for him, hinting at both the envy and the resentment with which he is regarded in the administration, is "the world's greatest hero". Powell drifted into the military because he says there was not much else for a black college graduate of 1958 to do. The turning point in his life was Vietnam - where he got two wounds and multiple decorations. His deputy, Richard Armitage, is also a military veteran who likes (privately) to point out that the most hawkish members of the administration (such as Cheney) have never seen a minute of military action themselves. "Many of my generation, the career captains, majors, and lieutenant-colonels seasoned in that war," Powell wrote in his memoirs of Vietnam, "vowed that when our turn came to call the shots, we would not quietly acquiesce in half-hearted warfare for half-baked reasons that the American people could not understand or support."
The parallels with Iraq, though, are largely lost on the likes of Rumsfeld or Cheney, who believe they, rather than Powell, have the wholehearted support of the American people; before 11 September, Powell was openly scornful of the need to go to war with Iraq again. Rumsfeld and Cheney see Powell as excessively cautious; Powell responds that there is nothing wrong with caution. In particular, Cheney (who was then the first Bush's secretary of defence) clashed with Powell over preparations for the first Gulf war; Powell at first advocated the defence of Saudi Arabia as the prime US mission, rather than the coincidental liberation of Kuwait. Then adopting the theories of overwhelming Clausewitzian might, Powell also advocated the use of 500,000 US ground troops - almost double the number that was ultimately used.
The hawks also now blame Powell (behind his back) for the way the Gulf war ended, failing to take either Baghdad or Saddam Hussein personally. The first Bush, following Powell's advice, called off the US assault on retreating Iraqi troops - allowing at least half of Saddam's Republican Guard to make it back to Baghdad. Privately, Powell now responds that a full-scale US assault on retreating troops would have led to an even greater (and morally unacceptable) Iraqi bloodbath than there actually was. But, like Bush Sr, he will also admit to some basic miscalculation: he believed, after so resounding a defeat, that Saddam would be overthrown from within. Saddam's very existence in 2002, therefore, is today blamed by the Bushite hardliners on Powell's excessive caution.
Notwithstanding that caution and his measured approach in public, Powell has a hot temper in private. His son Michael, now president of the Federal Communications Commission, says his father could "scare the bejasus" out of him as a child. He is known to his secret service detail as "a screamer", an official who will not hesitate to take his temper out on underlings. In a furious argument over Bosnia, Madeleine Albright - Clinton's not-so-bright secretary of state - complained to Powell: "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?" Powell recounts that he thought he "would have an aneurism" at this rhetorical question, at the very notion that the US army consists of toy soldiers to be moved around a global war board at the behest of the likes of Albright.
In his spare time, Powell's unlikely hobby is tinkering around with Volvos. He and his wife, Alma, whom he married in 1962, have two grown daughters, as well as a son. Partly in deference to her, but also because he says he does not have the stomach for partisan political warfare, Powell decided in 1995 that he would not seek political office himself; it says much for his disciplined military bearing that, despite playing so political a career under three previous presidents, he succeeded in keeping his political views to himself. Still today, many blacks resent Powell taking a senior post with a Republican administration. In the words of the singer Harry Belafonte: "You got the privilege of living in the house [in the days of slavery] if you served the master exactly the way the master intended to have you serve him".
But his colleagues in the inner war cabinet certainly don't see him as an Uncle Tom. By insisting in that Friday meeting in September 2001 that international solidarity was required, Powell succeeded not only in building himself a power structure, but also in reviving the fortunes of the hitherto moribund State Department: he has rejuvenated the career officers, appointing several of them rather than the usual political appointees to assistant secretary-of-state level. By that method, handily, he has also apoliticised the upper echelons of the State Department and kept them secure from political assault from the Bushite hardliners.
In Powell's words, the 11 September atrocities "hit the reset button" on US foreign policy - and it has been a resetting that Powell has been attempting ever since. He is no visionary, but a military problem-solver; he loves maxims such as: "It isn't as bad as you think; it will be much better in the morning." Powell has finally found his modus operandi within the hostile territory of the Bush administration: only if there is an international coalition, goes his mantra to colleagues, can they hope to crack down on terrorist financing, share intelligence, and bring off international arrests - all of which are necessary for success in the war against terrorism. It's a philosophy that has given this war veteran an excellent new war so far - even if the need for vigilance over his own back, at home in Washington, is one he can never forget.