November 16, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

A Fine Legacy

The rumormongers are wrong. Secretary of State Colin Powell didn't tender his resignation yesterday because Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld wouldn't play nicely in the foreign-policy sandbox.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, he also wasn't pushed out because he wasn't hawkish enough. Nor was he sacked because he was a moderate square peg in a neoconservative round hole.

Sure, there were plenty of heated, well-publicized disagreements over foreign-policy issues at the White House's National Security Council table over the last couple of years of the Bush administration. This is only natural in interagency bureaucratic politics.

Intellectual turf battles are common - even welcomed. Divergent opinions and a vigorous debate over issues of grave national importance are actually healthy and productive.

They provide the president with a panoply of options to choose from in formulating important issues of national policy. It's often said that if everyone around the (decision) table agrees - someone's wrong.

The fact is that Colin Powell is leaving the Bush administration under his own steam after four, over-the-top busy years (and countless "frequent flyer miles") as the nation's chief diplomat. No doubt the 67-year-old wants to spend more time with his lovely wife, Alma, tinkering with his collection of Volvos and making some money in the private sector for retirement.

Although not the most outspoken member of the first Bush administration, Powell leaves behind a highly successful legacy as President George Bush's first secretary of State:

  •  Achievements: Secretary Powell can take a big chunk of credit for developing the international cooperation that has done so much to advance the War on Terror. Most terrorists are put out of business not by military action (in contrast to what you see on the evening news), but by international cooperation spearheaded by diplomacy, solid intelligence work and roll-up-your-shirt-sleeves law enforcement.

Powell has also advanced efforts to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction through such initiatives such as the Proliferation Security Initiative and disarming Libya of its WMDs. He also advanced American interests by explaining missile defense to skeptical members of the international community, which saw it as destabilizing.

And Powell played an important role in strengthening relations with such key allies as Japan, Britain and Australia, in developing ties with India and in putting contacts with China on a solid footing after a rollercoaster relationship during the Clinton years. He can also be credited with improving the morale at Foggy Bottom after it plummeted to record lows under Madeleine Albright.

Powell didn't win every foreign-policy battle. (Iraq comes to mind.) In interagency politics: You win some, you lose some. But in tribute to Powell's character, when the president made a decision, like a good soldier, he saluted smartly and carried out his orders.

  •  Successor: Who'll get the job? Even before yesterday's news, the hands-on favorite in the Washington office pools was National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice. Condi has almost been inseparable from President Bush over the last four years (going back to the 2000 campaign), and is a natural to replace Powell.

Colin Powell is an American hero, and one of the most respected Americans at home and abroad. It's easy to understand why. He's served the nation with honor and distinction in almost every national security job out there, and done it well: soldier; chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; national security adviser, and finally secretary of State.

Unfortunately he'll leave big shoes to fill when he leaves his diplomatic post sometime after his successor is confirmed by the Senate. Without question, his successor will have to hit the ground running: stability in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran's and North Korea's nuclear programs, Middle East peace and the fighting the War on Terror just won't wait.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. E-mail:

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post