The Truth About Colin 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

November 17, 2004

The announcement on Monday of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s resignation and his replacement by the president’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, is already being greeted with dismay in much of America and around the world. For Democrats, moderate Republicans, and many US allies, Powell was a lone voice of reason and moderation in an administration dominated by hard-liners like Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Had it not been for the “realist” Powell in an administration of ideologues, the logic ran, US foreign policy under President Bush would have been even more arrogant and unilateralist. Powell’s replacement by Rice—who as Bush’s closest adviser almost invariably sided with the Pentagon hawks—thus ends whatever balance the administration once had. A reelected Bush feels he has a mandate to stay the course and no longer needs to take Powell’s calls for moderation and multilateralism into account.

The problem with this way of thinking is that it projects onto Powell foreign policy convictions that he did not have and an ability to influence administration decisions that he did not demonstrate. Because of his subtle intellect, diplomatic style, and progressive views on issues like affirmative action and abortion, liberals always wanted to see Powell as one of their own—but there was never any real reason for doing so.

Powell first made his mark on US foreign policy in the Reagan and Bush I administrations, where in a series of top policy jobs he supported a massive military buildup against the Soviet Union, aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, and the invasions of Panama and Iraq, the latter admittedly only after his earlier preference for sanctions was overruled. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1993, Powell strongly opposed the Clinton administration’s plans for humanitarian intervention in the Balkans and delayed action for years by constantly overstating the military requirements and carefully orchestrating leaks to the media about the risks that would be involved. (So much, by the way, for the image of Powell as the “loyal soldier.”)

And in the George W. Bush administration, Powell never once leveraged his enormous popularity to demand a course of action other than that supported by Bush’s more hawkish advisers. Powell may well have different foreign policy views than Cheney and Rumsfeld, but if so they were apparently not strongly held.

The case can be made, of course, that resigning would have accomplished nothing and that Powell was able to have far more influence inside the tent than outside it. On Iraq, for example, Powell has made clear (in his scarcely concealed leaks to Bob Woodward) that he had real reservations about the war and that he warned the president and other Cabinet members how costly an intervention in Iraq could be. But once it became clear that Bush was going to act, Powell decided to try to shape the strategy rather than oppose it. As his friend General Anthony Zinni put it, Powell concluded that “we’re going down this road and he wants to keep steering the train.”

The problem, however, is that Powell did not end up steering the train but simply going along for the ride. The administration used Powell’s credibility and public relations skills to help oversell the case for war and to reassure worried allies, while the Pentagon ideologues violated the “Powell Doctrine” by sending too few forces, ignored State Department advice on postwar planning, and mismanaged the occupation.

Powell did not always lose the internal debates, of course—he did manage to persuade Bush to pursue engagement rather than confrontation with China and to take the Iraq issue to the UN, for example. But he lost a lot more debates than he won. On the Middle East (Powell wanted a more active American honest broker role), on North Korea and Iran (He wanted to try to use engagement as well as sanctions), on Guantanamo (He wanted to apply the Geneva Conventions for detainees), on trade policy (He opposed steel and sugar tariffs), and on the environment (He supported a US initiative on climate change), Powell found himself the odd man out but was simply never willing or able to win the president over to his side.

Seen in the light of the real record, the loss of the Bush administration’s official moderate may not prove so consequential after all. To be sure, Rice will not offer the alternative voice within the administration that Powell at least at times attempted, and she will certainly not play the role of counterweight to Cheney and Rumsfeld. But in the final analysis neither did Powell. At least now when liberals look at the secretary of state they will see the embodiment of the president’s foreign policy rather than the false reflection of their own hopes and dreams.