Politics & Policy

The Teflon Secretary

Nothing sticks to Colin Powell — except a bewildering adulation.

From the May 5, 2003, issue of National Review

Among critics of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, the most common response to the military success in Iraq has been to applaud it, tepidly, while more loudly lamenting the diplomatic wreckage it has left in its wake. Our failure to win more allies among governments and more support among peoples has been blamed on President George W. Bush, on Vice President Dick Cheney, on defense secretary Don Rumsfeld, on second-tier officials such as Rumsfeld deputy Paul Wolfowitz, even on people entirely outside the government. But one person is escaping all blame for the administration’s diplomatic failures: its top diplomat.

Somehow, secretary of state Colin Powell always manages to come out smelling like a rose. He emerged as a national hero from the first Gulf War, even though, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he had opposed showing force to deter Saddam Hussein from invading Kuwait — and then resisted the use of force to undo the dictator’s conquest. He is likely to rise in public esteem again now, in the aftermath of another popular war he tried hard to prevent. But while Powell is getting the applause, it’s the administration’s hawks who are getting the policies they want. He may project an image of strength, but his influence is weak.

Powell’s reputation reflects both a strength and a weakness. He is where he is today because of his charisma, his sterling personal qualities, and his genius at playing the Washington game. But he has never been associated with any brilliant military move or diplomatic breakthrough. His record as secretary of state continues the pattern of his career: He has been more successful in bolstering his position in Washington than in bolstering America’s in the world.

That’s a harsh verdict, and it should be qualified. Powell has made several contributions to the administration. When an American surveillance plane was brought down by the Chinese in April 2001, Powell managed to defuse the situation without strategic concessions or much loss of face. Most of his detractors are willing to concede that his relationship with Pakistan’s ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, proved extremely valuable both in our efforts to avert war between that country and India and in our Afghan campaign.

When Powell has taken it upon himself to advocate the administration’s position, he has been quite forceful and effective. In the two months prior to the current war, Powell often had occasion to respond to the charge that America was acting out of militarism and selfishness. American soldiers had freed Europe, he noted, and we had asked for nothing in return “except enough ground to bury them in.” It’s not just stirring rhetoric that makes Powell a powerful spokesman; it’s also his appeal to people whom other members of the administration cannot reach. On February 5, Powell presented evidence of Iraq’s weapons programs and its concealment of them to the United Nations. The fact that the presentation was made by Powell, and not Cheney or Rumsfeld, helped to build domestic support for the war.

But Powell has been out of step with Bush at least as often as he has agreed with him. He insisted that America had no intention of toppling the Taliban even after the administration had plainly adopted that goal. He’s been a missile-defense skeptic. His deputy, Richard Armitage, has been more indiscreet. Last year, Armitage slammed supporters of war in Iraq, presumably including the president, as chicken hawks. In February of this year, he told the Senate that bilateral talks with North Korea were a good idea. (President Bush was “off-the-wall angry” about Armitage’s testimony, according to the New York Times.) Armitage has also described Iran as a democracy — this, more than a year after Bush called it part of an “axis of evil.”

Powell’s two great moments of triumph during the Iraq controversy came last fall. He was instrumental in getting Bush to ask the United Nations for support in September. And in November, the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1441, which demanded an immediate, fully verified end to Iraq’s weapons-of-mass-destruction programs. Even the Syrians endorsed the resolution. Its passage made some foreign governments more comfortable in working on war plans with us. Tony Blair, our most important ally, also thought that the effort to work through the U.N. would help him domestically.

The resolution was a real diplomatic accomplishment. Its downside was that it created an opportunity for the French to tie down the Bush administration by dragging out the inspections process. But none of our diplomats — in Europe, the U.N., or Foggy Bottom — appreciated the trap. They were apparently incapable of seeing that Paris would never authorize force right up until the French themselves, in an excess of glee at our confusion, said so. Powell is said to feel personally betrayed by the French. A second blunder was to take the support of the Russians for granted. Its failure to materialize made it impossible even to isolate France on the Security Council.

It can be argued that this fiasco did no military harm and even that it had some benefits. It discredited the U.N. for part of the American public, and it made it clear to rogue regimes that our government is willing to destroy them even when they have high-class friends. But these were scarcely the outcomes that Powell intended.


Some of Powell’s critics inside the administration — he has many, although few are willing to talk on the record — also consider Turkey’s refusal to grant us basing rights to be, in part, the State Department’s fault. Joel Mowbray reported on National Review Online that the department had leaked information about the negotiations in order to put pressure on the Turks; instead, the leaks angered them. In general, we didn’t work on Turkey as hard as we had in 1991. Some of the hawks wonder why Powell didn’t travel to Ankara until the situation had already started to unravel.

One of the few things that the mainstream press has zinged Powell about is his reluctance to travel. But that reluctance is only part of a larger problem: the State Department’s failure to engage in public diplomacy. A lot of Americans probably assume that one of the department’s core functions is to argue for the positions of the U.S. government overseas. That happens in some embassies. But it’s not a priority for the department, and it especially wasn’t the priority when it came to Iraq — which is one reason the White House had to create its own Office of Global Communications to make the case on Iraq.

A prominent hawk outside the administration explains: “The United States did not get its story across, and I believe that’s not because it’s a bad story. I think the State Department’s heart wasn’t in it. The percentage of people in the State Department who supported the president’s policy is probably similar to the percentage of people in Pakistan who support it. And that’s reflected in the failure of the diplomatic establishment to appear on the talk shows [and] write the op-eds. . . . There’s no gold star on Powell’s report card for the diplomacy surrounding this war.” (A spokeswoman for the department declined to provide statistics on its public diplomacy concerning Iraq.)

State hasn’t won hearts and minds in the Middle East; it hasn’t even done it in Europe. Powell could have made a difference there. No other member of the administration has the credibility and trust in Europe that Powell does. A senior diplomat for one of our European allies says that he wishes the administration would send Powell to European capitals more.

Once the war started, State’s most conspicuous propaganda activity took the form of a front-page story in the Washington Post trashing the battle plan. Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz were all fingered for giving the president “bum advice.” The story’s sources included “people sympathetic to Powell,” “some close to Powell,” and “officials . . . in the State Department.” (A Pentagon official remarks, “These are the people who brought us the six-month debacle at the United Nations criticizing the war plan a week and a half in.”)


The department’s Near East bureau will do what it can in the aftermath of the war to keep Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress out of power. Chalabi is a longtime opponent of Saddam Hussein’s regime, but State and the CIA are longtime opponents of him. Congressional supporters of the INC charge that State has bent the law to deny funds to the group. State’s hostility to the INC may ultimately have undermined our public diplomacy, by making it harder for the administration to put an Iraqi face on the concept of liberation.

State isn’t keen on democratizing the Middle East, period. The same day President Bush announced his support for a democratic Iraq, at the American Enterprise Institute, the department issued a classified report throwing cold water on the idea that Iraq could lead a democratic wave in the region. The old saw about the State Department — that its employees tend to regard themselves as the world’s ambassadors to the United States, rather than vice-versa — is true in spades of its Middle East hands. If you see your job as ensuring good relations with, say, Bashar Assad, it will always be easier to reach that goal by changing our behavior than by changing his.

Unless the department is given strong political direction from the top, it will follow its own instincts rather than the policies of whoever happens to be president. There are isolated voices for administration policy at State — notably John Bolton, Elizabeth Cheney, Paula Dobriansky, Mark Lagon, and David Wurmser. But Powell mostly chose State careerists to fill the key jobs. To the extent Powell, Armitage, and their circle have a philosophy of their own, it’s the kind of “pragmatic” acceptance of the world just as it is that gives realism a bad name. That philosophy reinforces State’s weaknesses.

President Bush’s instincts on foreign policy are a lot better. But when he fails to reach a clear decision, the State Department tends to engage in trench warfare with other parts of the administration. Danielle Pletka, a former Jesse Helms aide who now runs the foreign-policy shop at the American Enterprise Institute, explains: “The State Department is the State Department, and it doesn’t matter whether a Republican or a Democrat is in the White House, and it is still the job of the president to make sure that policy is implemented that is consistent with the leadership of the country.”

The next test for Powell will come in postwar Iraq. On most of the disputed questions, the White House, in the person of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, has been siding with State. If Powell invites large-scale French involvement in Iraq, he will show that he is reverting to form and has learned nothing from his betrayal. If he holds firm, on the other hand, he may have to find a way to get the U.N. to lift sanctions without using the occasion to butt in.

A Republican senator sums up the sentiment of his colleagues: “We all like Colin Powell. That said . . . [some of us] are very skeptical of the support he’s given the president. You’d like to have people a little more committed to the president’s program than the State Department sometimes seems to be.” But Powell, who polls better than the president, will have his job as long as he wants it. The press continues to laud him as the adult restraining the hotheads around Bush.

His impact on the administration, however, is as negligible as that of his predecessor William Rogers in the Nixon years. This is an unusually plastic moment in American foreign policy. The shape of world politics is being set. So far, the concepts that guide Bush — the doctrine of pre-emption, its application to Iraq, the new national-security strategy — have been coming from the Department of Defense and the vice president’s office. State has offered resistance and foot-dragging, but no alternative concepts. The intellectual agenda is being set by the hated Wolfowitz. Colin Powell, meanwhile, seems content to serve as the State Department’s ambassador to the Bush administration.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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