Foreign Policy

The Man Who Isn't There

Why we shouldn't worry about a Powell vacuum

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There was much hand wringing two weeks ago when it was reported that Secretary of State Colin Powell would not be staying on for a possible second Bush term. Though Powell and the White House denied the story, the real question was whether the secretary's departure would be such a great loss.

Powell is one those men who exudes credibility, even when his record tells a different tale. Ever since he became secretary of state in January 2001, the ever-popular Powell has drifted from one slip-up to the next, particularly in the Middle East. Yet many—particularly in the Middle East—continue to regard him as the sole rational official in an administration of kooks. Even as Powell's list of failures increases, so does his standing.

Looking back on what Powell has done in three years, his legacy seems remarkably thin. Indeed, the foreign policy initiative has always seemed to be in the hands of his bureaucratic rivals. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice took point on relations with Russia early on in the administration; later, ties with Europe and NATO were hijacked by the Pentagon; and recently on North Korea, Powell has deserved a hefty share of the blame for the administration's lack of a clear-cut strategy on how to confront Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

But it's in the Middle East that Powell's futility has been most apparent. The secretary's first overseas visit was to the region, where he sought to impose "smart sanctions" on Iraq. Powell didn't have real support for the plan in Washington, and Iraq's neighbors predictably rebuffed him. Syrian president Bashar Assad did promise to cut off illegal Iraqi oil exports through Syria, and Powell used this to emphasize the success of his tour. However, Assad subsequently ignored the pledge, embarrassing the secretary and helping sink the smart sanctions scheme altogether.

In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Powell was more careful. Like his predecessor Madeleine Albright, Powell sensed the conflict presented him with a lose-lose situation, and initially steered clear. That made sense inasmuch as President George W. Bush had no intention of putting his personal credibility on the line to resolve the imbroglio. However, this allowed Powell to validate his lethargy, as he never sought to use even limited advances on the Palestinian-Israeli track to build up a semblance of Arab and international support for the Iraq war.

Iraq was Powell's Waterloo. He showed that he had lost the initiative within the Bush administration, but also that he was incapable of delivering his erstwhile friends, the Europeans, to a UN resolution sanctioning war. When Paris and Berlin rebuffed him, Powell was livid. He found himself alienated both from Europe's powerhouses and from those in Washington who felt Powell had led them on a wild goose chase at the Security Council.

Unlike another former secretary of state, James Baker, Powell failed to take advantage of the aftermath of the Iraq war. While he understood it was time to move on the "road map," and even pushed the peace plan forward, he never got a hold of the policy: Powell couldn't prevent Bush's dithering when dealing with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, or cut into pro-Israel sympathies at the White House and Pentagon. He brought Bush to the river—or rather the Red Sea—but has been unable to make him drink the waters of true Palestinian-Israeli peace.

A secretary of state who can't get things done, who persistently abides a glass half empty, is better off going home. Powell is a competent man who, like William Rogers, former President Richard Nixon's first secretary of state, will be forgotten a generation hence. And like Rogers, whom Henry Kissinger made irrelevant, Powell has been repeatedly overtaken by more vigorous colleagues. The reason is that he embodies stalemate in an administration that has come to epitomize the contrary.

Where but again in the Middle East has Powell's appetite for the status quo been so evident? The State Department has long favored stolid continuity in its transactions with Arab governments. This has protected relations often painstakingly forged, while also guaranteeing that other Washington bureaucracies wouldn't take advantage of tectonic shifts in regional affairs.

That's one reason why the US has spent decades embracing thugs in the Middle East. Successive administrations did advise friendly Arab despots to reform. However, the State Department never pushed too hard, both because this threatened to disturb otherwise comfortable relationships, and because during the Cold War hard-pressed regimes could always bolt in the Soviet Union's direction.

Powell is merely the latest agent of an inbred State Department aversion to change. It is indeed odd to see how so many Arabs regard him as a friend, though he is the one who has most counseled leaving their regimes alone—the very same regimes most Arabs systematically complain are oppressing them. If Powell and the State Department had their way, the Middle East would remain a redoubt of authoritarian kleptocracies for generations to come.

One needn't approve of Washington neoconservatives to point out that they're the ones who have relocated the foreign policy debate to where it should be: in the realm of innovation. They have welcomed change, not deadlock. If Powell leaves office it may create a dangerous imbalance in a second Bush administration, but it surely won't cost it many new ideas.