Listen to Powell

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

July 31, 2002

Not for the first time since the early days of the Bush administration, the press and diplomatic circles in Washington have begun to talk about the isolation of Colin Powell, secretary of state.

According to a recent front-page New York Times story, Mr Powell now even bravely jokes about rumours regarding his potential resignation, while his friends and associates insist that he will loyally soldier on.

Mr Powell’s commitment quietly to serve the president who hired him—even after suffering setback after setback on the policy front—is in many ways admirable. It stands in sharp contrast to the experience of previous ideologically divided administrations, when Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski, or George Schultz and Caspar Weinberger, could not contain their differences privately and fought pitched battles through press leaks and internal machinations.

But the argument for quietly taking your hits on a policy level is that it allows you to remain part of the team, preserve your influence and live to fight another day. What is the point of fighting on, however, unless you occasionally win?

Mr Powell is probably the most popular secretary of state the United States has ever had. He has a broad base of support independent from that of the president, makes a deeply conservative administration more palatable to centrists or even moderate democrats and buys the administration enormous cover with allies around the world.

His resignation, were it ever to come, would be a tremendous political and personal blow to the president. Given such leverage, why does Mr Powell consistently fail to come out on top in the policy debates with the administration’s more ideological voices?

It is not that Mr Powell has lost every internal fight. He successfully avoided a precipitate withdrawal of American forces from the Balkans that would have dismayed allies, undermined Nato and led to potential instability in the region. He won the debate with Pentagon hawks over whether to give Russia a role within Nato and even managed to get President George W. Bush to sign a nuclear arms treaty, though it was watered down. Mr Powell’s support for increased development aid to poor countries also won out over those who see foreign aid as a waste of resources – although much of this proposed aid has yet to materialise.

But the list of issues on which the secretary of state has lost is growing. Reputedly acting against Mr Powell’s advice, the Bush administration has abandoned the plan to organise an international conference on the Middle East, ended engagement with reformist elements in Iran and announced protectionist trade policies on agriculture and steel.

Mr Bush has infuriated allies by refusing to support international treaties on climate change and an international criminal court and even sought unsuccessfully to undermine the agreement on the court by threatening to withhold US support for United Nations peacekeeping operations. In Afghanistan the administration rejected Allied offers to be more involved militarily and has refused to participate directly in the international peace force that Mr Powell and much of the international community believe is essential to ensure stability in that country.

The most recent rebuff was Mr Bush’s decision to withhold US support for UN family planning funding because of allegations that the money was being used for coerced abortions, despite the findings of a State Department report commissioned by Mr Powell that said this was not the case.

It is not that Mr Powell is right on all these things or that there is no merit to some of the administration’s tough-minded or unilateralist views. But the cumulative effect of Mr Powell’s failure to get his way on a long list of issues has been a gradual isolation of the US in the world.

During the 2000 election campaign, George W. Bush said of the international community: “If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll…resent us. If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us.” And yet nearly every time that Mr Powell has proposed a course of action designed to demonstrate that humility and inspire the rest of the world to “welcome us”, his position has failed to carry the day.

Americans and their allies sympathetic to Mr Powell should admire his commitment to his administration, his determination to stay the course in the face of adversity and his decency in not publicly airing his differences with his colleagues. But at some point, and more often than in recent months, they also need him to win.