November 17, 2004

November 17, 2004 | Commentary on

End of the Powell Era

How we love the Washington game of musical chairs. But at least as far as Secretary of State Colin Powell is concerned, the music has stopped. So has the speculation about the designated successor to his chair, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

On Monday, Mr. Powell handed in his letter of resignation to President Bush. It was a generous letter, gracefully offered at the right time for transitions between the two Bush terms. As in so much else, Mr. Powell hit just the right tone, ending years of speculation.

Mr. Powell's tenure at State will be evaluated in coming years. It will surely be seen as one characterized by paradox. Mr. Powell has been the most popular secretary of state in human memory with approval ratings of 65 percent; a man widely respected the world over, who came into office with a vast stock of political capital. So great was Mr. Powell's clout in 2000 that President Bush would have given him any office he wanted.

Had he threatened to resign on policy principle at any point in the past four years, he would have wielded tremendous clout. Yet, Mr. Powell will also be remembered as a secretary of state who lost policy battle after policy battle to the Department of Defense, and was compelled to fight rearguard actions to keep his influence - which he did very well by the way.

He had to watch as…The Powell Doctrine does not relate to U.S. foreign policy, but to the use of American military force, going back to Mr. Powell's tenure as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. It mandated the use overwhelming force, but has now been overridden in Iraq by the Rumsfeld doctrine. The State Department has generally lost out to the National Security Council and the Pentagon on the formation of foreign policy, on matters from North Korea to Iraq to the Middle East.

Within State, Mr. Powell's leadership style won him great accolades. He took over a department that was totally demoralized by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's tenure, and inspired great affection. In this, Mr. Powell performed, as one would expect from a military leader, showing loyalty not just to the president he served, but also to those under his command. This unfortunately also meant that policy was in the hands of holdovers from the Clinton era, who were often not in sync with the president's agenda; sometimes it seemed that Mr. Powell wasn't entirely himself.

As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich stated in a lengthy and prophetic critique of the State Department at American Enterprise Institute in April, 2003, "Without bold dramatic change at the State Department, the United States will soon find itself on the defensive everywhere, except militarily. In the long run, that is a very dangerous position for the world's leading democracy to be in, indeed. In the long run, that is not a sustainable position." Mr. Powell was not the man to effect that change.

Those who have had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Powell or listened to him speak know that the man has "perfect pitch," an unfailing ability to read an audience that is the envy of every public speaker. On his fairly rare visits overseas, Mr. Powell would blow foreign audiences away with his style and eloquence. He could have been the biggest weapon in the U.S. diplomatic arsenal. But a reluctant traveler, he failed to deploy the State Department's best weapon, himself, even as public opinion around the world regarding the U.S. policies sunk to new lows.

At the United Nations, Mr. Powell was a reluctant negotiator, uncomfortable with the give and take of lobbying for votes in the U.N. Security Council. His speech on Feb. 5, 2003, detailing the putative Iraqi stockpiles of Weapons of Mass Destruction, has to have been the low point of a long and distinguished career.

Secretary Powell now returns to private life, leaving the State Department in the hands of Condoleezza Rice, one of the president's most trusted aides, whose confirmation seems a given. Her fingerprints are already all over the Bush foreign policy. With the increased authority that she now has will she have more luck than Mr. Powell at balancing the headstrong Mr. Rumsfeld? Will she be able to shake up the State Department? Ms. Rice certainly has her work cut out for her.

Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail:
helle.dale@heritage.org .

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times