Barbara Boxer

Colin Powell: Biggest Pantload In State Department History?

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Reason has never had any kind words for former Secretary of State Colin Powell, so it may be superfluous to revisit, at this late date, the topic of what a failure he was. Certainly, earning the title of Biggest Flop in the history of the Department of State would take quite an effort, requiring the candidate to beat out such stalwarts as Dean Rusk and William Rogers, Robert Lansing and Cyrus Vance. The notoriously retiring Powell, a man clearly more comfortable munching shrimp cocktail at some function for D.C. swells than putting in the long hours required to fail spectacularly, doesn't seem like a good prospect for such an honor.

But Powell has an unusual advantage in that he's been immediately succeeded by an obviously more capable S.O.S.—and in the same presidential administration, thus making invidious comparison easier. Condoleezza Rice has been on fire since taking over at Foggy Bottom, and if her performance has the special benefit of making Sen. Barbara Boxer look like an even bigger blockhead than she normally does, it also puts Powell's tenure solidly in the shade. Just before the invasion of Iraq, I floated the idea that the travel-averse Powell might be responsible for Bush 43's failure to reconstruct the All-Star Team of allies Bush 41 assembled for the first Gulf War. Now Powell's out, the trans-Atlantic rift is mending (despite America's jittery checkpoint troops), and the ivory-tickling Condi is playing her way into the coeurs of all France.

That's quite a turnaround from the days of the Powell State Department—and Powell was supposedly the guy the Europeans liked. Plenty of ink has been spilled over America's supposed diplomatic isolation, and it would shoot all kinds of pet theories to hell if we found out the Elevator Killer was…Merv Griffin! But maybe the tortured diplomacy of the first Bush administration was never really about Bush's rashness or European perfidy. Maybe it was Powell all along.

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  1. HA! Love that headline Tim.

    So is it just coincidence that “The man with two brains” was showing on AMC this afternoon?”

  2. Condi does cut a better figure, no doubt. BTW, is it just me or has she had some work done? I swear she looks better than she used to.

  3. Reason: the only publication that can make a reference to “The Man With Two Brains” when discussing the tenure of a former Secretary of State.

    Bravo.

  4. But at first he seemed so MUCH BETTER than his predecessor.

  5. It would have been much worse under Kerry….

    Right?….

  6. It’s amazing that both the elder Powell AND the junior Powell have followed such dismally similar paths.

    By displaying a complete lack of consistency, initiative and leadership – in an administration that rewards that sort of thing, no less – are leaving their once promising posts amid such mediocrity.

  7. Now, now, everyone. Let me paraphrase an essay I read many years ago.

    All of us have our good qualities and some not so good. It would behoove us all to search for these good qualities and refrain from making accusations and speaking and writing badly about any individual just because he has two brains, is incompetent, and generally a low down, ignorant, afterbirth of a mongolian mongrel who cleans defecation in the slums of China.

  8. You know…I always liked Powell until he became a Bush appointee.

    While I hoped – along with a lot of other folks – that he would be a tempering influence on the more ‘excitable’ aspects of Bush’s cabinet, I always got the impression that Powell was just a poor fit.

  9. Before 9/11, and throughout the 2000 election and the launch of the new administration, we were ALL still in the 90’s…and rightly so – there was (for the time being) every reason to suppose that the first decade of the new century would be broadly like the last decade of the previous century.
    The new Bush administration was a fairly reasonable Republican version of how to govern in the 90’s. Genuinely conservative – much moreso than Bush I…but with room for guys like Powell.

    Then everything changed.

    I think a lot of the “incandesent rage” of the Democratic Left is just 90’s nostalgia…and I see a lot of that reflected here in H&R. Whe a set of parents get divorced, the kids often act-out in sullen and truculent ways, because kids don’t like to have their world change.

    Powell was a type of the 90’s – a real Clintonesque, “let me explain MY feelings” lip-chewer. It didn’t play well with Europeans really anxious about American initiatives. Although they kinda liked the guy for a while (hell, they LOVED Clinton), they didn’t feel like they understood the Administration…because they were getting a boatload about how Powell FEELS. Eventually they “felt” like they were being misled…and who can blame them?

  10. We’re united with Europe on Iran and the Europeans like us better now. All we had to do was abandon the US position of the past couple of years and adopt the European one.

    Why, it’s the old “capitulation” gambit! A most clever negotiation strategy. I suppose Powell never would have thought up that one.

  11. Um, the only way Rice has outshone Powell so far is in her (dominatrix) attire. She’s only been in the job a few months; I think it’s a bit early to make any substantive judgments.

  12. Like John Q, I tend to think declaring Rice the greatest diplomatic mind since Talleyrand is premature.

  13. Andrew,
    Interesting analysis. Too bad it bears no resemblance to the facts. Your assertion that “The new Bush administration was a fairly reasonable Republican version of how to govern in the 90’s. Genuinely conservative – much moreso than Bush I…but with room for guys like Powell.” ignores that fact that, while there were guys like Powell and Cheney, right from the get-go this administration was loaded with sanctimonious fundie wackos that believe they were hand picked by God almighty to run the life of every living soul on the planet. Furthermore, Bush the younger was never conservative in the Reagan/Gingrich sense of the word. Even prior to 9/11 he was moving as fast as he could to explode the budget, size, and power of the federal government.

  14. John Q makes an exceptional point, though I think Rice has more going for her than Powell did. Lot’s of folks praised Powell for quite some time. That eventually morphed into sympathy until his ineffectiveness became apparent.

    Rice is so far displaying a great deal of enthusiasm perhaps because – unlike Powell – she actually believes in her mission.

    So far, she’s outshining Powell, but public opinion is a fickle thing and when you’ve spent 4 years intentionally pissing people off, somebody might be itching for a payback.

    I’m hardly a fan of the Bushies in general and Condi in particular. But they and she are playing the foreign policy game much smarter than before.

    Though I’m loath to admit it, IMHO I don’t think Powell would’ve been up for this and I think Rice is.

  15. I’m not big on Powell – always seemed like the most overestimated man in America to me. But let’s not start worshippint at the shrine of Condi either. Actually having the backing of the President (Rice) instead of his grudging acceptance that he has to appoint you because of a campaign promise (Powell) can make the job of Sec. of State a lot easier.

    Remember Bush and Rumsfeld cutting Powell off at the knees over his North Korea statement? You’re not going to see that with Rice.

  16. Warren

    Bush II was not a conservative in the Reagan/Gingrich sense, because Gingrich was yesterday’s man, finished by ’95…really, a man of the 80’s – and the 80’s ‘been over a LONG time, now!

    Bush would not have increased the domestic budget much, and with an expanding economy and SS Reform, you wouldn’t have been feeling it. He would only have increased the military by modest amounts, and with a view to containing China. The “faith-based” initiatives” would have been about the same, and in some respects our foreign policy would have been even LESS active than under Clinton.

    All those campaign promises were about as sincere as such things ever are – 9/11 changed all that.
    The script had to be re-written with whatever lay to hand. Powell didn’t fit, and probably should have been booted over to some UN post, at once.

    joe

    …more like what happens when a Secretery of State backs the President.

  17. I’m a long way from being a Bush fan and that includes brother Jeb. But, although I don’t care for Bush I detested John Kerry and everything he stood for and against and then for again.

  18. Andrew,
    Two things real quick
    1. Steel tariffs
    2. Farm bill

  19. It would have been much worse under Kerry….

    If you want to be under Kerry, crimethink, go for it. I bet Tereza’s sick of him by now anyway.

  20. and if her performance has the special benefit of making Sen. Barbara Boxer look like an even bigger blockhead than she normally does, it also puts Powell’s tenure solidly in the shade.

    If anything, Boxer made Rice look like a blockhead, by which I mean “liar.” And making Boxer look good is a bad thing.

  21. I didn’t say Rice was the greatest diplomat since Talleyrand. I said she’s a better diplomat than Powell, and I’ll stand by that, even on the evidence of a couple months.

  22. Tim,

    I think you are absolutely correct.

    Here, for what it may be worth, is a wee op-ed I wrote for The Scotsman last November that may have been a little, but only a little harsh on Powell…

    yours aye

    AM

    http://news.scotsman.com/archive.cfm?id=1327132004

    Don’t mourn Colin Powell’s departure

    ALEX MASSIE

    WEEP no tears for Colin Powell. Instead, reflect on what might have been had Mr Powell proven himself a better secretary of state. One remarkable feature of the past four years has been how few of the United States? diplomatic failures have been blamed, even in part, on the country?s first diplomat. Mr Powell has been a Teflon Secretary of State; history may not be so kind.

    One can understand why Mr Powell stayed to try and frustrate a foreign policy he did not believe in; less explicable is why he continued in office after it was clear he had failed in his mission.

    Mr Powell was a disturbing but unsackable influence. In this respect he was George W Bush?s very own Gordon Brown. But while Mr Brown can point to domestic achievement, Mr Powell?s scheming and sustained leaking produced little more than evidence of his own emasculation.

    Mr Powell enjoyed the trappings of office without bearing the responsibility for policies he declined to support.

    Saddled with a policy with which he did not agree, he had two options: resign with dignity or sell the president?s policy abroad with conviction. He did neither.

    Mr Powell travelled only half as much as his most recent predecessors. We can only speculate whether more intensive efforts from the secretary of state would have secured an agreement to allow US troops to enter Iraq via Turkey, ensuring that no “Sunni Triangle” north of Baghdad would have been allowed to exist unmolested by coalition troops. What we do know is that Mr Powell refused even to go to Ankara to make his president?s case in person.

    Worse, his lack of loyalty compromised his department and his president. Whatever her other faults – and she was not a commanding national security adviser – anyone meeting Condoleezza Rice knows they are speaking to someone with the ear of the president and hearing what Mr Bush wants them to hear. That clarity will be valuable.

    It was typical, as we know from Bob Woodwards? book Plan of Attack, that Mr Powell should feel personally affronted when Dominique de Villepin sabotaged the secretary of state?s efforts to win support for a second United Nations resolution prior to the invasion of Iraq. Mr Powell seemed more concerned by the blow to his pride than by the setback for US and British policy.

    More importantly, Mr Powell?s departure is evidence that the president is now his own man. In 2000 much was made of the stability that wise old heads such as Mr Powell, Ms Rice and Dick Cheney would bring to a president startlingly ill-informed about the rest of the world.

    Four years on, for better or for worse, the president?s authority and vision, compromised by Mr Powell, reign unchallenged. It?s also something to be welcomed since, for all his popularity, Mr Powell has shown few signs of the scope or substance of the president?s vision. In this instance, the pupil has outstripped his tutor.

  23. Andrew’s original bullshit:

    The new Bush administration was a fairly reasonable Republican version of how to govern in the 90’s. Genuinely conservative – much moreso than Bush I…but with room for guys like Powell.

    Andrew’s more recent bullshit:

    Bush II was not a conservative in the Reagan/Gingrich sense, because Gingrich was yesterday’s man, finished by ’95…really, a man of the 80’s – and the 80’s ‘been over a LONG time, now!

    Flip-flop.

    Bush would not have increased the domestic budget much, and with an expanding economy and SS Reform, you wouldn’t have been feeling it.

    (a) You don’t know what Bush would have done (you sure are fond of baseless predictions).

    (b) The economy wasn’t expanding when Bush entered the WH.

    (c) Bush’s SS reform package as it now stands is dead in the water. What factors would have made it more likely to pass in his first term?

    He would only have increased the military by modest amounts, and with a view to containing China.

    Maybe or maybe not.

    The “faith-based” initiatives” would have been about the same, and in some respects our foreign policy would have been even LESS active than under Clinton.

    Maybe or maybe not.

  24. Anyone know how Powell’s total time spent abroad stacks up against other S.O.S.’s?

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