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Powell leaves an unfinished legacy

From the early months of the Bush administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell stood lonely vigil over the traditions of continuity and caution that have characterized American foreign policy since the end of the Vietnam War.  Analysis by Michael Moran.
President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell during a visit to Nigeria in the summer of 2003. Charles Dharapak / AP file

From the early months of the Bush administration — long before the 9/11 attacks reshaped the national security debate — Secretary of State Powell stood lonely vigil over the traditions of continuity and caution that have characterized American foreign policy since the end of the Vietnam War. This often left him on the losing side of major arguments, and aides and confidants say that took its toll on the retired general, both personally and in terms of his influence within top policy-making circles.

“The writing has been on the wall for a while,” a State Department official said. “I don’t think it is any secret that senior people here felt there were things we could have been doing to lessen the downside of the Iraq war decision and some of the setbacks since.” 

With his departure, though, the speculation about where a second-term Bush administration will take America comes to a head even before that term begins. Will Powell be replaced from within the ranks of neo-conservatives in the administration who lobbied hardest for a new “pre-emptive” doctrine and for bucking world resistance to the attack on Iraq? Or will the president choose a more consensual figure, someone adept at the kind of intricate negotiations looming with Iran, North Korea and between the Israelis and Palestinians?

No delay seen
Within the administration, various factions are vying to influence Bush’s choice of a successor. In many ways, given the centrality of foreign affairs right now to the United States, the selection of a new secretary of state may be the most important indicator of where the president plans to take the country. In normal times, far more attention and passion might be devoted to filling the post of departing Attorney General John Ashcroft.

President Bush was able to mobilize his party’s faithful for the general election, but the GOP suffers from real internal difference when it comes to Iraq policy and larger questions of the war on terrorism, non-proliferation, working with traditional allies, foreign trade and immigration.

“Given what’s going on in the world, I don’t think you are going to see a drawn-out debate on who the next secretary should be,” says Richard Murphy, a former top Reagan administration official on Middle East affairs who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia and other countries. “I think they’ll move quickly to fill it and that we’ll see someone in place within a few days of the president’s inauguration.”

Alexander Haig, like Powell a general who became secretary of state after retiring from the military, says the most important thing for Powell’s successor to do is to establish a very close, cooperative relationship with the Pentagon, which during Powell’s tenure has often been at odds with the State Department. Given the complexities of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he says, “the secretary of state, secretary of defense and [national] security adviser have to walk in lockstep to achieve the goals of the president,” he says.

Leading candidates
Speculation currently focuses on several policy officials within the administration, including national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and current U.N. Ambassador John Danforth, a former GOP senator from Missouri, both of whom are viewed by insiders as status quo choices.

Others being championed by various factions:

  • Chuck Hagel and Richard Lugar, a pair of moderate Republican senators whose selection would be viewed as an olive branch to Democrats, European allies and disgruntled elements in the GOP.
  • John Bolton, a senior State Department official on East Asia whose hawkish views on North Korea have a wide constituency.
  • Elliott Abrams, an equally hawkish National Security Council aide who gained notoriety during the Iran-Contra hearings of the 1980s.
  • Paul Wolfowitz, the current deputy defense secretary and author of the administration’s Iraq policy, is a Bush favorite but would face intense, even hostile questioning in confirmation hearings — perhaps not the tone the administration wants to set at this juncture.

Powell’s own deputy, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, is widely expected to announce his own departure before the first term ends.

A mixed legacy
The legacy Powell leaves behind is best described as a work in progress. Clearly, he lost major policy arguments within the administration, which moved more aggressively than Powell felt comfortable with in attacking Iraq.

Then, with momentum toward war building, the White House dispatched Powell to the United Nations in February 2003 to lay out its case that Saddam Hussein posed a huge threat to world peace by virtue of his program for weapons of mass destruction. It will very likely rank as his nadir as a U.S. official. He said as much that May, telling Tim Russert on “Meet the Press” that “it turned out that the sourcing was inaccurate and wrong and in some cases, deliberately misleading. And for that, I am disappointed and I regret it.”

Powell also became the firefighter when Bush policies sparked outrage in the wider world, whether it was the withdrawal from the Kyoto protocols on greenhouse gas emissions in early 2001 or the sometimes tense policy arguments with NATO allies leading up to the Iraq attack in March 2003.

A lot of baggage
More than perhaps any other member of Bush’s original Cabinet, Powell brought with him a well-known, battle-tested personal philosophy of how American power should be exercised. This experience — or baggage, depending on one’s perspective — included a war-fighting doctrine that bore his name: “the Powell doctrine.” In a nutshell, this philosophy held that the United States should commit its troops to battle only when absolutely necessary, in numbers sufficient to guarantee an overwhelming advantage, with a clear exit strategy and only if the enemy and aims could be defined clearly for the American public.

As he made clear in his 1995 autobiography, “My American Journey,” written with Joseph Persico, Powell’s cautious approach had roots in the frustrations of two tours of duty in the Vietnam War.

“Many of my generation, the career captains, majors and lieutenant colonels seasoned in that war, vowed that when our turn came to call the shots, we would not quietly acquiesce in halfhearted warfare for half-baked reasons that the American people could not understand or support. If we could make good on that promise to ourselves, to the civilian leadership, and to the country, then the sacrifices of Vietnam would not have been in vain.” 

At the time of his book’s publication, there was great speculation about a Powell presidential bid — and, indeed, both Republican and Democratic officials contacted him about the idea. In the end, he chose to steer clear of electoral politics.

Still, returning to policy-making with Bush’s election, he struggled mightily to reconcile the unfolding events of the “war on terrorism” with his well-known views on the use of military power. The Afghan campaign that immediately followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the United States flew in the face of the Powell doctrine in many ways, though Powell himself has always contended that his doctrine has been oversimplified.

In the end, though, the Afghan and Iraq wars, both fought with fewer forces than Powell’s former military comrades would have preferred, eclipsed for the moment both the doctrine that bore Powell’s name and his own influence at the top policy table. Whether Iraq turns out to prove the Powell doctrine or bury it remains an open question.