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Clash of the administration titans

By Michael Duffy and Massimo Calabresi

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Old rivals Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld square off in a new battle over how to rebuild a post-Saddam Iraq

There are moments in history when ideology stops being a parlor game for academics and actually shapes the future of the world. As American troops mass outside Baghdad, a battle of ideas is taking place inside Washington's corridors of power that could fashion a new Middle East.

Leading the fight are the two titans of American foreign policy: the moderate and isolated Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and the hard-line Pentagon boss, Donald Rumsfeld. Though the two men make nice in public, they have fought over almost every aspect of U.S. foreign policy--from China to North Korea to Russia to, of course, Iraq.

Rumsfeld and Powell last week broke several months of public comity, and it was no coincidence that the mortars started flying just when U.S. troops arrived at Baghdad's city limits.

For months it had seemed that the normally tidy Bush Administration, where debate is top secret and dissent is taboo, could never tolerate a rivalry of this size, depth or duration. But the grudge match between Powell and Rummy is one of the few dependable leitmotivs of the second Bush presidency--though the rivalry harks back to the first Bush.

Powell, the moderate, was a favorite of Bush's father; Rumsfeld and Bush the elder never got along. Powell, a retired four-star general, trusts the military implicitly; Rumsfeld above all wants to teach it a few lessons. Each man enjoys rock-star status.

Each came to his current post in a roundabout way. Rumsfeld, who once served as Richard Nixon's NATO ambassador, has become at 70 the civilian warrior. Powell, a lifetime soldier, is at 66 the country's top diplomat. In other words, each man considers himself an expert in his own field--and the other guy's as well.

But personalities are probably the least important factor in this face-off. At the core of the conflict are two different ways of looking at the world. Rumsfeld and his team of neoconservative civilians at the Pentagon favor an activist and often unilateralist approach to advancing America's interests abroad.

Powell's camp sees the world through a prism of interlocking interests that need to be protected by alliances and stability. The fight between internationalists and unilateralists has gone on in the Republican Party for a generation.

What's different this time is that Rummy and Powell are engaging in it at the very moment when the principles of U.S. foreign policy are up for grabs.

This is why both men are so eager to test-drive their theories in Iraq. Now that Saddam is on the verge of being ousted, the key battle is for control of the Iraqi interim authority, which will move the country from U.S. military rule to an elected Iraqi government, crafting its constitution and its future. Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, insists the process will be open to all.

"The Secretary is not promoting any individual or group to be the future government of Iraq," Wolfowitz told TIME. But behind the scenes, Rumsfeld's aides have been promoting a team of exiles led by Iraqi National Congress boss Ahmed Chalabi, 58, a former businessman, to control the interim authority.

They view Chalabi as a reliable democrat in a nation of Saddam followers. But State, backed by CIA officials, says Chalabi is a charlatan who hasn't lived in Iraq since 1958 and has no constituency there. This group favors waiting to see which new forces emerge.

Two weeks ago Powell sent Rumsfeld a list of prominent Americans who could help the hand-off from the military to the interim authority, but most were rejected as woolly-headed by the Defense Department. Instead, Rumsfeld nominated a notably more hard-line group, including a former CIA director, James Woolsey, to be Minister of Information.

Powell's folks view that maneuver as dangerously unwise. How better to deepen Arab resentment about the war, they ask, than to put a well-known ex-spook in charge of public information?

Woolsey didn't help when he responded to Arab concerns last week by saying, "We want you nervous. We want you to realize this country and its allies are on the march and that we are on the side of those whom you--the Mubaraks, the Saudi royal family--most fear: we're on the side of your own people." Even a Rumsfeld ally said later of tapping Woolsey, "Whose bright idea was that?"

But rather than back down, Rumsfeld's forces fired off a letter to the White House, asking the President to take advantage of a swiftly changing situation in Iraq to install Chalabi's interim government. "All our military guys on the ground are desperate to figure out whom they can send to talk to these friendly Iraqis," said a Rumsfeld ally. "We have to grab this opportunity."

Pentagon officials said repeatedly last week that the military wants to turn the country over to the Iraqis in stages, as soon as possible. Some of them say they need only six months to build a democracy.

But officials at the CIA and State believe there is no way the U.S. can even begin to create a stable democracy in six months in a country that has never had one. CIA officials believe a rush to elections might result in the kind of winner--let's say a radical Islamist party--that the U.S. might be forced to reject outright, a distinctly undemocratic precedent.

The Pentagon hard-liners think this attitude underestimates the Iraqi people and note that some former Soviet-bloc countries made the transition in a matter of months.

Looking for reinforcements, Powell was in Europe last week, feeling out allies to see if they might lend a hand with the postwar mess. British Prime Minister Tony Blair favors using the U.N. to help with humanitarian and reconstruction projects, partly as a way to bring the U.S. and Europe together again after the damaging breach at the Security Council last month.

When Blair and Bush meet early this week in Belfast, Blair will echo Powell's line and push the President to seek international help. But the hard-liners are adamantly opposed, saying the U.N. will only make things more expensive and complicated. Besides, they say, if you weren't with us on the takeoff, you don't deserve to be there for the landing.

But the most important debate of all is one that is only being hinted at. The fight about postwar Iraq is also a fight about whether and where Bush will again deploy troops to root out terrorism and transplant democracy. Military officials report that using force against Syria or Iran once Iraq is stabilized is a "live issue" in Bushland. That idea gives the State Department and allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt rolling heart attacks.

"The camps are dividing on the question of will we push for a vision of a new democratic Middle East, or will we listen to the lobbying of some of the countries in the region," says Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "State wants to keep as many people on our side as possible, but the Defense Department is saying, 'Look, this is about a big, bold vision, and we're willing to push it forward.'"

No one can say this Bush lacks the vision thing, which may be a pretty good indicator of where he falls in the great Powell-Rumsfeld debate. In just over two years in office, the President has displayed a preference for the bold stroke--and there may well be others in the offing.

--With reporting by Mark Thompson and Douglas Waller/Washington and James Graff/Brussels

Copyright © 2003 Time Inc.

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