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Last Updated: Monday, 15 December 2003, 21:36 GMT
How long will Powell soldier on?
Robert Plummer
By Robert Plummer
BBC News Online Americas analyst

US Secretary of State Colin Powell's successful prostate cancer operation may have dispelled fears over the state of his health.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell
Colin Powell has been an internationalist as Secretary of State
But the 66-year-old war hero turned statesman could find it harder to quell the continuing speculation over his political future.

As next year's US presidential election nears, it is uncertain whether Mr Powell wants to remain in charge of the country's foreign policy if George W Bush wins a second term.

The retired four-star army general has been the subject of several media reports saying that he wants to step down.

But whatever happens next, Mr Powell has won international respect for the way he has handled the huge and unexpected challenges of the past three years.

Since he became the first African-American Secretary of State, the "war on terror" has come to dominate American foreign policy in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US.

As "senior statesman", he has been at the centre of efforts to win and maintain a historic international consensus on how to tackle terrorism.

However, it has never been clear that he has the full backing of a divided administration.

Power struggle

Under the Bush presidency, the US has alienated many around the world with its unilateral rejection of initiatives such as the Kyoto climate change agreement and the International Criminal Court.

US foreign policy has often seemed to be the product of a struggle between the hawkish, conservative Pentagon and the more moderate, Powell-led State Department.

The Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington
Colin Powell is recovering from surgery at an army medical centre
But when the administration has sought to reach out to other nations, Mr Powell has been at the forefront of those efforts.

In the run-up to the US-led war against Iraq, he successfully argued in favour of involving the United Nations and giving Iraq "one last chance" to disarm.

However, he ultimately failed to win UN backing for the war, despite a presentation to the Security Council in which he asserted that Saddam Hussein had amassed secret weapons of mass destruction.

No evidence for the existence of those weapons has yet been found, but Mr Powell has denied that the White House exaggerated intelligence reports in order to justify war.

Overwhelming force

Mr Powell was born to Jamaican parents in New York in 1937 and raised in the South Bronx.

He retired from the army in 1993 after 35 years in the military, including four years as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the Bush senior and Clinton administrations.

A decorated Vietnam veteran, he is best known for his role as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War, the highest military position in the Department of Defense.

When we go to war, we should have a purpose that our people understand and support
Colin Powell
It is believed that he thought about running for President in 1995 and both parties courted his support. Politically, he is a moderate Republican.

His vast military experience helped shaped what has become known as the Powell Doctrine - the policy of exercising caution when sending US troops to fight abroad.

The doctrine says troops should be sent in overwhelming numbers or not at all, and only when success is assured.

Such action would only be taken where there is a clear national interest and an exit strategy.

Political pledge

Mr Powell's military experience is augmented by strong negotiating skills, honed as deputy national security adviser and then as national security adviser in the Reagan administration.

He was a key player at the summit meetings that brought the US and the former Soviet Union closer together - and a supporter of the "Star Wars" missile defence programme.

If Mr Powell does withdraw from the political fray, it will be at least in part because of the concerns of his wife Alma.

It was apparently Alma who persuaded him not to run for the presidency in the 1996 election, and he reportedly promised her he would serve as Secretary of State for only one term.

Powell cancer surgery 'a success'
15 Dec 03 |  Americas
Prostate cancer
15 Dec 03 |  Health

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