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Power shifting in the president's cabinet?

What does Colin Powell's resignation mean for American and Middle East politics? MSNBC's Randy Meier talked to 'Hardball' host Chris Matthews. For Matthews, Powell's resignation is interesting for one reason: His replacement.

Randy Meier, MSNBC anchor: How big a void does Colin Powell’s resignation leave in the Bush administration?

Chris Matthews, host of ‘Hardball’: [Powell]leaves the biggest possible void, and the biggest mark. The whole world— everybody that reads the newspapers— is trying to figure out which way this administration is going to go.  I suppose the big signal will be who the president picks to be the secretary of state to replace Powell.

Meier: What do you see happening there – do you think Condoleeza Rice will shift over as some speculate, or would she hold out for a Secretary of Defense position?

Matthews: I agree with Tim Russert, that the inclination she seems to have is with Defense… because defense is where leverage of power is. As we’ve seen in the war in Iraq, that’s where the action is. Diplomacy is not this administration’s first priority. The use of force has been. Therefore, the person who controls the Defense Department is the president’s right hand man. This person will be the closest to the president, and will probably have the approval of Dick Cheney.

There are a lot of questions about this new revamping of authority. Will Colin Powell be replaced by a hawk? And the world will know what a hawk looks like— someone who’s been involved in the war with Iraq with some passion. For example, I heard this morning that Elliot Abrams might be considered. That’s someone of course, whose name is being pushed by the hawks. He of course will never get the job…

John Bolton from the State Department…  Wolfowitz has apparently shown interest in the job. If a hawk gets the job, the world will see that the administration is continuing on its current policies. If however, someone like John Danforth gets the job, or someone from politics, who is not part of that wing of the Republican party, then people will say ‘Maybe the president is reconsidering and he’ll be kinder and gentler in his second term.’

Meier: What about Congressional approval? Is a new appointment a big task in Congress?

Matthews: I don’t think there will be a problem getting 51 votes. The president has a right to his or her secretary of state. It’s not like a court appointment where it’s a joint decision.

There will however be a lot of questions on the war, from the Democratic side especially, or from the skeptical side of the Republican party like Sen Chuck Hagle (R-Nebraska).

For example, if Paul Wolfowitz, the undersecretary of defense were put up for Atate, he would have to answer all kinds of questions about the reasons we went to war… the real reasons as well as the public reasons. He’ll have to answer question on the evidence-gathering and why it was done, and why we were misled on weapons of mass destruction, whether in fact weapons of mass destruction was the chief reasons for going to war. All those questions would come to a head,  but I don’t think it will stop the appointment.

Meier: How many are jumping ship and how many of were expected?

Matthews: These positions in question are jobs given "to serve at the president’s pleasure." It’s a wonderful appointment for life, to serve in the president’s cabinet…..and  4 years is enough good will for the group that’s represented here. The president wants to spread it around. The spoils of victory are clear now, and the president has a mandate and he wants to spread the wealth.

Meier: What questions does this raise about the Middle East?

Matthews: All the time, Powell was trying to bring some kind of peace and order to the Middle East, and he was being undercut.

The vice president was meeting with Netanyahu, the rightist competitor to Ariel Sharon in the Likud block. Clearly that wasn’t a signal of support for the secretary of state as the president’a chief emissary, the VP, probably the second most powerful man in the country, is meeting with his opponent in the Likud block.

The real power in this administration lies between the president and the vice president. The vice president is certainly the president’s chief counsel on foreign policy, not the incoming secretary of state.  That may change.

The big change I’m looking for is this: Will George W. Bush relieve Dick Cheney of some of his enormous power and give it to a secretary of state? In other words, shift power from the vice president’s office, which has been so enlarged in this administration, to a cabinet secretary… whether it’s the new DOD chief who may be Condi Rice, or the new secretary of state, whoever that is?

I think there’s going to be some power shifting and not just name changing. And the one to watch here is the vice president. Will George W. Bush continue to allow the public perception that he has almost a co-president in Dick Cheney? Or will he say that it’s time,  in true Machiavellian fashion, for the Prince to move on and govern without a chief counsel? I’m looking at that one. That, to me is the fascinating question.

Meier: Will Powell resurface politically somewhere down the road, or will he retire and do the speaking circuit?

Matthews: [Powell will] never run for office. He could have run for president 4 or 5 years ago and he could have done extremely well. I completely accept the security concern that he and his family have and I think its legitimate reality, unfortunately, in this country. So I think he won’t serve at that level of tremendous vulnerability.

He wouldn’t run for governor or senator—that would be a step down. He’ll continue to do speeches, and he will be an eminent man. And maybe sometime in the future he’ll be respected by the administration if it’s a Republican administration. My own feeling is that he’s more respected by the Democrats. He’s a blue state figure in American politics and in the world. Unfortunately, he’s had to support a war that he didn’t believe in. He’s had to take orders as a military man rather than as a secretary of state. He played more of an agency role than an advisory role and that disappointed a lot of people when we saw that happen, as the build up to war began… clearly a war he did not endorse.

Meier: Is there a sadness in this—that a strong figure in politics and military history may fade away?

Matthews: Anybody that loves America clearly want to see top African Americans take top places in the running of this country, in corporate life as well as every part of life. Colin Powell got that top place, it seemed. Then he was there for appearance, to some extent, to round out the council table, but not in a position of real counselor role

So many people thought that he could balance out Donald Rumsfeld. But what they didn’t know that the vice president had a thumb on the scale. Powell was unable to stand his balance against Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld had an extremely powerful ally in Dick Cheney and that became clear. At one point, Powell wasn’t even aware of how advanced the planning was on the war with Iraq.

He was a balancing hand in the Middle East. We’ve always been able to play a role, this country, a finesse-ful role. First, we’re pro-Israeli and second, we’ve played the referee.

We’ve played both those roles at the same time, and it requires tremendous finesse. Most of our presidents have been able to play both roles at the same time.  This administration has decided to play one role, which is support Ariel Sharon’s government. And that has cost us a lot of goodwill on countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Right or wrong, that has shifted our country from a balance position to one-sided. There’s a lot of hope that somewhere along the line, that we’ll have an emissary in Israel who’ll have the trust of both sides, and not just Sharon who’s very popular in Israel right now (and he deserves to be by trying finding a solution where no one else has… by pulling out of Gaza ).

It’s a complicated mess, but the big question I go back to is to see whether the president picks a man of the right, or a man or woman of the center. It’s going to be very interesting, and powerful it its results.

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