Another Perspective

The Bush-Powell Conundrum

Why is Colin Powell willing to serve as a punching bag to so many domestic critics? Perhaps because he is serving his nation and his president in ways his critics don't quite fathom.

By 4.19.02

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Put the name "Powell" into the search window of a web browser or an Internet newsgroup, and the results are startling, even to a news junky: An absolutely relentless string of articles, columns, and op-eds criticizing Secretary of State Colin Powell's trip to the Middle East. Screen after screen of titles comes up. Everybody has weighed in: the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, Charles Krauthammer, George Will, Investor's Business Daily, National Review, the Weekly Standard, Mark Steyn. And that's just among Bush supporters. The more liberal establishment press has spent its time congratulating itself that it made Bush send Powell. The conservatives have been griping ever since, as though they believed it.

The current criticism elaborates on long-standing disapproval of Colin Powell from the right. In the words of Robert W. Tracinski, writing back on February 5 on Jewish World Review: "Powell is reversing the proper role of the secretary of state. As the nation's chief diplomat, Powell is supposed to be America's advocate in dealing with the rest of the world. It is his job to stand up for America, to insist on our essential interests, to make our case to the world, and, if necessary, to make our threats. Instead, Powell has consistently acted as the world's advocate in America, representing the views and demands of our European and Arab 'allies.'"

Powell makes Bush go wobbly. Powell sucks up to the Euro-weenies. Powell tries to please the Arabs. Powell doesn't do what the President wants him to do. Powell has his own agenda. Powell tries to subvert the Bush Doctrine on terror and on states that harbor and support terrorists. Powell has made Bush into a double-talker, forcing Israel to compromise on its own self-defense.

How likely is that? How likely is it that the Secretary of State of a President secure enough to appoint people like Condeleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and, indeed, Powell himself, is not following orders? That the Secretary of State is a rogue, a maverick, a loose cannon, off the ranch?

Not very.

Go back to late in 2000, when Bush announced Powell's appointment. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby expressed dismay at that time, writing, on December 17, "He has many terrific qualities, but strategic vision and innovation have never been among them. ... Thinking 'outside the box' is not a Powell trademark; his instinct is always for the status quo…"

Powell has always been somebody's man, going back to his first White House assignment at the National Security Council under Ronald Reagan, where he worked with Frank Carlucci. Indeed, it would be surprising if he were not. No one climbs his way to the top of the Pentagon bureaucracy without being at least something of a trimmer. On that kind of career path, you've got to play the game. And if Powell's main instinct is "always for the status quo," there should be no surprise. Instead, we should ask if Jacoby's conclusion, that Powell's instinct "occludes his judgment" is correct -- or if, in fact, the people who have appointed Powell and used Powell have concluded that he is valuable simply because of who and what he is.

The office of Secretary of State has known many and different occupants, weak and strong, diplomats and warriors, politicians and bureaucrats, Dean Rusk and Dean Acheson. In the Bush administration, Powell is the head diplomat, a post for which he is perfectly suited by temperament and experience. Diplomacy isn't pretty. Its practice recalls the famous dictum that you have to have a strong stomach to watch sausage making or legislating up close. In the past two weeks, we have perforce seen a whole lot of diplomacy up close.

Robert W. Tracinski gets the "chief diplomat" part right, but not the definition. Diplomats do not make threats. They keep their nation and other nations from making threats. They do that by sitting in chairs and not needing to go to the bathroom and saying the same things over and over and over again with small variation. Threats, rarely issued, are the job of the heads of state, and that not too often. Leaders who threaten too frequently make themselves and their countries look ridiculous (think Muammar Qaddafi).

Diplomats also explore and report back, and do so primarily in secret. In the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much has been made of "buying time," of "pacifying Arab allies" while we plan to attack Iraq.

But there's something else going on.

Alcoholism counselors speak of "tiptoeing around the elephant in the living room," an image of the denial that families engage in to avoid admitting that Dad's a drunk. We have an elephant in the international living room. It is called Saudi Arabia. Daniel Pipes wrote April 14 in the New York Post: "U.S. intelligence sources have concluded that Saudi princes are spending millions of dollars to help large numbers of al Qaeda and Taliban members escape the American dragnet. One source told Middle East Newsline that 'the money flow to al Qaeda continues from members of the royal family.'"

A hammer blow struck at Iraq will open cracks elsewhere in the Middle East. No regime is so fragile as the House of Saud. And no country is more culpable in the current crisis. Everybody knows it, but nobody says so out loud.

Here's where Colin Powell's instinct for the status quo will serve his President very, very well. That instinct might also be described as "a feel for power." Powell will report to President Bush what the current state of Middle East power politics really is. His legendary ability to avoid conflict means he can speak with enemies -- or with enemies pretending to be friends -- and hear things that a more confrontational man might not get to hear at all.

(N.B. How many intelligence officers do you suppose traveled with Powell? Who do you suppose they were talking with?)

The publicity on the Powell trip has been awful, something the administration had to know would happen. And it beggars belief that the Bush team would do something that, according to a recent poll, cost them ten points in public approval if they did not figure to get something out of it. The public picture has been almost pure hokum. Ultimately, the Powell trip will be deemed successful within the White House for what he saw and heard, not for what he did or did not do about some chimera of an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.