The Rehabilitation of Colin Powell

With Bush's Iraqi strategy in tatters, it falls to the State Dept.'s diplomats to woo the U.N. and defuse tensions in North Korea and the Mideast

By Stan Crock

Ever since September 11, the war in Afghanistan, and the Iraqi invasion, the conventional wisdom has been that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice-President Dick Cheney ran roughshod over Secretary of State Colin Powell in shaping President Bush's foreign policy. As we've seen lately, the truth is far more complicated.

Sure, the neoconservatives in the Administration have given Powell fits and fights on everything from building an international coalition to oust Saddam Hussein to pulling out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to dealing with North Korea. But such is policymaking. Look closer, and you'll see the ex-General's imprint is on all the most important foreign policy decisions the U.S. has made since President Bush took office. The differences, Powell said in a Sept. 9 interview, were more over how to get to a goal than the goal itself.

Now, with U.S. military options exhausted in Iraq, Rummy on the defensive, and the neoconservative vision for a post-war renaissance in Iraq looking like a pipedream, Powell's influence will likely grow even larger. Deft diplomacy, not military might, will determine how America fares on the international stage in the future. The first stop for Powell is the U.N. Security Council, where the U.S. is pushing for a new resolution on Iraq to pave the way for international contributions of troops and cash.


  Powell's State Dept. diplomats also are in the middle of the difficult six-party negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear-weapons program. The striped-pants set, not Rumsfeld and the camouflage-clad grunts, will be dealing with Iran's growing nuclear capabilities. Combat isn't a viable option in either case. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict also will be Foggy Bottom's, not the Pentagon's, to handle.

"The State Dept. is going to carry a lot more water than conventional wisdom in Washington would assert," says John Hulsman, a foreign policy expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank. By and large, he says, the U.S. doesn't "have a security problem. We have political problems that have security manifestations." That may be a little simplistic. But the issues, for the most part, are tactical -- how does the U.S. achieve its goals? -- rather than a matter of setting new priorities. And that plays to Powell's strength. The neoconservatives "are good on the vision thing. Ironically, they're bad on the tactical stuff. Powell is the exact opposite of that," says Michael McFaul, a foreign-policy expert at the conservative Hoover Institution.


  With the focus on how to win U.N. support for the occupation, defang North Korea, and reduce the violence in the West Bank and Israel, Powell will be front and center. No more shovel brigade, cleaning up the messes left behind by military excursions and wars.

Powell will have to be creative and clever in the pursuit of policy. With the consequences of further direct military interventions too frightening to consider, Administration hawks tend to support a stand firm/stand tall approach until North Korea dictator Kim Jong Il, the Iranian ayatollahs, and Yassir Arafat collapse of their own weight. Of course, they've been waiting for Castro to cave, too, and that hasn't gotten the U.S. policy objectives very far.

Yet, the President seems to realize that sitting tight as the violence in the Middle East flares and Iran and North Korea develop nukes isn't an option any longer. "There are so many threats," says Hulsman. At this point, Powel has built enough of a reputation as a realist to carry the day in setting the policy agenda.

The hawks' woes -- and the overstretched military -- could end up being a problem for Powell as well. Some analysts believe his diplomacy was helped by the threat of military intervention. It's possible, for example, that Powell notched a unanimous vote for a tough inspections regime in the Security Council because other nations were convinced the U.S. would invade immediately without it. With the threat of combat elsewhere diminished, Powell's clout internationally may weaken. In an interview with BusinessWeek, Powell disputed that possibility, noting that the President hasn't taken the military option off the table anywhere and that Pyongyang remains worried it will be a target.


  Even some sympathetic to Powell wonder whether he might also be hurt by a style that focuses on putting out fires without articulating an overarching foreign policy strategy post-September 11. Yes, that's for the President to articulate. But it's also in Powell's bailiwick, and he has too often remained silent. Besides, "he has been a remarkably poor defender of the positions he was trying to defend," gripes one foreign-policy expert in his camp.

Powell's strength will be bolstered if he can persuade the U.N. to commit more help in Iraq. That probably will involve a greater Security Council role in the political transition, more foreign companies winning reconstruction contracts, but continued U.S. control of military forces. Senator Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.) thinks the latter should be a no-brainer, since no other country could possibly want to take command of forces in Iraq. As Powell's star rises again, the neoconservatives' vision for Iraq is taking a hit. They wanted Iraq to be a model for the Middle East -- a democracy where entrepreneurship would flower and oil would flow freely in a free market. Now, "how about just getting the electricity on?" says Kurt Campbell, a former Pentagon official at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. "Not only is their political agenda in tatters, but the economic one is as well."

Powell will still need his shovel from time to time. But it wouldn't surprise me if more and more, he sets the tempo for the Administration's foreign policy.

Crock covers national security and diplomacy for BusinessWeek in Washington

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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