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Colin Powell, Forever the 'Good Soldier'

March 28, 2004|James Mann

As the United States marked the first anniversary of its invasion of Iraq, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell toured Afghanistan, met with Pakistani and Saudi rulers, testified before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks and flew to Madrid. He was, as usual, hard at work on behalf of an administration in which he often seems philosophically out of tune.

As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993, Powell was the nation's best-known proponent of caution in the application of military force. He was reluctant to go to war to reverse Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and he opposed sending U.S. troops to the Balkans. These days, quite a few Americans wonder why Powell went along with last year's war and why he has seemed so marginalized within the current administration.

Such questions are rooted in misconceptions about Powell. On foreign policy, despite his caution, he has never been the liberal he is often taken to be. In the 1980s, he served as Ronald Reagan's national security advisor, supported aid to the Nicaraguan Contras and led the way in the American military intervention in Panama. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he worked closely with then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and then-Undersecretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz in preventing a Democratic Congress from making far-reaching cuts in the defense budget. When Clinton took office in 1993, Powell later wrote in his autobiography that he felt "like a skunk at the picnic. I had been up to my eyeballs in Reagan and Bush national security policies."

Still, the question lingers: Powell was such a dominant force in the last two Republican administrations; what happened in this one? To answer that, look to recent Republican history.

After losing the White House in 1993, the Republicans moved further to the right on foreign policy. The tone of George W. Bush's campaign in 2000 was noticeably more hawkish than that of his father eight years earlier. But in fact, the positions the younger Bush took -- supporting missile defense and a tougher policy on North Korea, for example -- were not new; they were similar to those of Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. (Dole's top two advisors for foreign policy that year were Donald Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz.)

During the late 1990s, leaders of past Republican administrations regularly met with congressional Republicans and leaders of conservative think tanks to talk about where the party was heading. Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz and, later, Condoleezza Rice were all at the table, but Powell was not. The organizers didn't invite him. ("Maybe he was too high up," said Martin Anderson of the Hoover Institution.) And he probably would not have gone anyway; he views himself as a concrete problem-solver and tends to avoid "study groups" and abstractions.

Powell played a vital political role in Bush's 2000 campaign. He helped reinforce the theme of "compassionate conservatism." That fall, Bush told voters that Powell, one of the most popular figures in American politics, would have a prominent role in his administration. Still, Powell was not heavily involved in the campaign's internal foreign-policy discussions among Rice, Wolfowitz, Cheney, Rumsfeld and others.

After the Supreme Court decision that settled the 2000 election, Bush quickly named Powell as secretary of State, his first Cabinet appointment. The decision was showcased to demonstrate the president-elect's desire for healing and national unity. But Powell's nomination quickly set off a campaign against him within the Republican Party.

Neoconservatives had fought Powell on Bosnia; social conservatives disliked his support for gun control and affirmative action; some veterans of the first Bush administration remembered how much independent authority he had wielded as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. All feared that the former military leader would manage to dominate both the State and the Defense departments and become the new administration's preeminent foreign policy voice. The Bush team brought in the experienced, assertive Rumsfeld as Defense secretary, a man who could limit Powell's influence.

In short, Powell's role was circumscribed even before the start of the administration. Then, in the administration's first few weeks, Bush undercut Powell's authority in public by disavowing what the new secretary of State said about North Korea. And as the administration began to move against Saddam Hussein, Powell became the leading voice urging his colleagues to move more slowly, to work more closely with other countries.

Why doesn't Powell quit? One reason is simply that he disagrees with the administration's policies far less than outsiders assume. Typically, on a recent trip to India, he told students that the Iraq war was not a mistake: "We believed at the time ... that Iraq had stockpiles" of weapons of mass destruction.

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