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Colin Powell is the partial peacenik

The official season of gratitude is upon us, and we must count our blessings. This year we have to settle for being grateful for small favors. For instance, we should be glad that Colin Powell is secretary of state. Were it not for him, our soldiers might even now be going door to door in downtown Baghdad conducting a lethal canvass.

We owe this intelligence, as is often the case, to Bob Woodward, the world's premier interviewer, and his phenomenal success in getting people who should say no to say yes. His successes are enough to cause envious journalists like myself to re-examine our whole approach. The easiest out for us is to say that we cannot offer the subject a date with history _ a chance to tell his side of the story for a book that can be put on a shelf and settle arguments for the ages.

Woodward's voodoo _ some say it's fearsome preparation plus assiduous cultivation of the lesser breeds of bureaucrat _ works again in his forthcoming book, Bush at War, an inside view of life around the campfires of Team Bush in its scrap with Saddam Hussein.

At its heart is an account of Powell's victory over the hard-breathing hawks, such as Vice President Dick Cheney, who are mostly in the ascendancy. After weeks of trying for an exclusive audience with the commander in chief _ and getting only brief sit-downs at which Condoleezza Rice, the warrior-queen of national security, was in attendance _ Powell got two hours over an August dinner with Bush.

We might all enjoy our turkey more _ particularly the younger members of the clan, who could be summoned to the front _ if Woodward told us that Powell told the president not to go to war at all. Powell might have cited the folly of picking a fight with a radioactive lunatic before we finish the crusade against terrorism, might have said that the Arab-Israeli conflict needs to be settled before we invade Iraq. He might have told the president that partiality for Ariel Sharon is not a policy. He might have pointed out also what the bellicose Donald Rumsfeld and Cheney seem to overlook: that Hussein, however loathsome and however close to building nukes, has nothing to do with Osama bin Laden.

Powell apparently did not go into any of that. He didn't tell the president not to go to war; he told him how to go to war in a politically correct way. The president must, despite his disdain for international institutions, go to the United Nations, which his right-wing base loves to hate. It would be wonderful if Woodward could tell us that Powell tried to stop a war; but the secretary only tried to put it off for a couple of weeks and provide a fig leaf for the first American first-strike operation.

Bill Clinton, whose name is never mentioned without a sneer in the Oval Office, told us in October that his pal Tony Blair performed a similar office for George W. Bush. At a Labor Party conference in Blackpool, England, Clinton told the cheering crowd that their prime minister had relieved Bush of his chaps and his lariat as the president was prepared to gallop off to the brink of unilateral military action. Blair stood by beaming.

There is, of course, the school of thought that believes that Bush's war talk is just that, and that his progress from "regime change" to "disarmament" underlines the authenticity of Bush's intermittent insistence that war is "not inevitable." War with Hussein was the thrilling, if unnerving, campaign weapon that brought Hussein to his knees and the voters to the polls.

The Weekly Standard, court circular of the Cakewalk Corps _ that circle of macho civilians, led by Richard Perle, who believe Baghdad would kiss the first tank it saw _ has been gleefully running stories about Democrats' failure to appreciate a lovely little war, and about Europe's generic spinelessness. But in the face of U.N. inspections, the editors write that the machinations of "senior State Department officials" they won't even name have eroded Bush's position "not terminally, but worryingly."

We'll know more later, obviously. Meanwhile, thanks to Woodward, we have learned anew that the secretary of state is a patient and humble man, not easily put off. He persevered until he got two uninterrupted hours with the president to persuade him to try diplomacy instead of bombs. And aren't we lucky that the commander in chief listened? Powell may not be the perfect peacenik, but he'll have to do until the real thing comes along.

+ Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist. +

Universal Press Syndicate