‘I Am on the President’s Agenda’
By Nicholas Kralev
The Washington Times
March 1, 2004
Colin Powell listened with growing but controlled anger. He saw the question coming. After all, there is no charge against a secretary of state more serious than the one leveled by some members of his own Republican Party — and even in the administration he serves.
They accuse him of leading a government agency that not only opposes President Bush’s foreign policy, but also tries to undermine it. His response came out in a single well-known barnyard expletive. Then, to emphasize the point, he added: “That’s quotable.”
“I can show you people in Washington who claim to be pushing the president’s agenda, [but] who are not,” Mr. Powell continued, sitting in his small inner office on the seventh floor of the State Department.
“People are fond of pointing out that I may not be on the president’s agenda,” he said. “I am on the president’s agenda. I know what he wants. I see him many times a week — in groups or alone. And the people who work for me respond to the direction that the president gives to me and I give to them.”
Coarse language is hardly characteristic of Mr. Powell — not only because it does not fit the diplomatic etiquette. That was not the image most people had when Mr. Bush chose the charismatic and almost universally liked war hero to be secretary of state.
Mr. Powell, who has a rare talent for pleasing huge crowds just by showing up, still has many more supporters than detractors — at home as well as abroad. But is he really in charge, in an administration with other formidable figures, such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, deeply involved in foreign policy?
Can any secretary, for that matter, be in charge when more government agencies than ever before are laying claim to foreign-policy turf?
Many current and former State Department officials agree that the ability of various agencies to deal with foreign countries directly — thanks to instant global communication and easy travel — has made it increasingly difficult for the secretary of state and his department to maintain a monopoly on the nation’s foreign policy.
The ‘mayor’ of State
More than 260 Foreign Service members interviewed in Washington and at about 30 embassies and consulates around the world in the past six months said morale within the department is higher than it has been in nearly two decades. Mr. Powell, they said, is more committed than most of his predecessors to managing the department.
“He is the mayor of the building,” said Rena Bitter, a consular officer serving at the embassy in London. “People feel like they work for him. They have gotten the message that he cares about the institution. When people perceive loyalty from a leader, they are loyal, too.”
Nicholas Burns, the ambassador to NATO in Brussels, said “people see him a lot” because “he walks around the building and into offices.” “I see the way he works when he comes to my mission,” Mr. Burns said. “He grabs my junior officers and introduces himself. That travels all around the circuit, and people are impressed.”
Many senior officers said Mr. Powell is more accessible than his predecessors had been.
“He is never more than a phone call or an e-mail away,” said Tony Garza, the ambassador to Mexico, who is a political appointee and a longtime friend of Mr. Bush. “He turns his e-mail around very quickly. It’s pretty amazing when it comes back seven minutes later.”
Mr. Powell also has won praise for dramatically increasing the department’s budget, improving relations with Congress and upgrading the computer systems and other communications capabilities.
“I’m seen as a bit of a nut case on this,” he said in the interview, “but there was more to this than just getting everybody the Internet-capable computer. It’s to show them we’re alive, we’re well, we’re in the 21st century.”
If there is any criticism of Mr. Powell’s stewardship from the ranks, it is that he should do more to challenge them intellectually.
“We have to make sure that, as we rightfully pay attention to management, which I support, we also try to produce the next George Kennan,” said a senior Foreign Service officer in reference to one of the most pre-eminent U.S. diplomats.
Mr. Kennan, who turned 100 last month, was deputy chief of mission in Moscow in 1946 when he wrote an 8,000-word cable to Washington that became famous as the “Long Telegram.” It was the main document used to formulate the decades-long U.S. policy of containment toward the Soviet Union.
“I worry that we don’t put enough emphasis on the intellectual and conceptual development of our officers,” the senior officer said.
Beltway game rules
It was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who accused the State Department last year of engaging in a “deliberate and systematic effort” to undermine Mr. Bush’s foreign policy. But even some members of the administration say in private that Mr. Powell is not tough enough in his dealings with foreigners, and that he gives their positions too much consideration in preparing advice for Mr. Bush.
Senior officials at other agencies — and a few at the State Department — have gone so far as to say that Mr. Powell should have offered his resignation after making it known in various meetings that he does not agree with certain policies.
Mr. Powell’s aides respond that it is the secretary’s job to present the opinions of the international community in interagency deliberations. But once the president makes a decision, they say, Mr. Powell implements it, regardless of his own position.
“We are the voice of reconciliation and peaceful pursuit of differences,” one senior State Department official said. “We are not ideological and categorical.”
Mr. Powell has another group of critics who also are fans. They are mostly Democrats, moderate Republicans and foreigners, who say that Mr. Powell is “the best thing” in the Bush administration. But they reproach him for failing to fight harder for his internationalist approach to foreign policy and against the more unilateralist instincts of some of Mr. Bush’s other advisers, who represent the so-called neoconservative — or neocon — wing of the Republican Party.
Most significantly, those critics say, Mr. Powell missed an opportunity after the September 11, 2001, attacks to offer Mr. Bush a blueprint — similar to the Long Telegram — for a new U.S. foreign policy rooted in international cooperation and the use of America’s soft power, rather than military might.
“It’s striking that the vision the president adopted didn’t seem to come from State — the department offered no alternative to the neocon vision,” a former senior State Department official said. “Powell supposedly stands for all those good things, but they have become a tactic and we don’t see them reflected in strategy,” he said, adding, “I hate to criticize him because he’s such a nice man.”
Another top official in a former administration said: “I’m a close friend of Colin Powell’s and I have the greatest respect for him, but I must say, sometimes I feel sorry for him. He’s having to do battles here with agencies that in the past weren’t players in some of these issues.
“There is no more pure foreign policy issue than Arab-Israeli peace, and everybody is in the meetings on that over there,” he said. “The secretary has to fight a very powerful coalition of opponents in the vice president and the secretary of defense, so it’s tough.”
The official also said that when a foreign leader comes to Washington today, he or she “has to touch four bases to determine what our foreign policy is.” Those are the State Department, the National Security Council, the Pentagon and the vice president’s office.
Madeleine K. Albright, Mr. Powell’s predecessor, agreed that Mr. Powell faces issues that are even more daunting than the problems she had as the first female secretary of state. “He has a very interesting cast of characters,” she said. “It’s hard to judge whether he could have or should have done more. He is a team player. I think he’s had a hard time.”
A senior aide to Mr. Cheney said the vice president is unfairly accused of trying to undercut Mr. Powell. “This vice president is enormously interested in foreign policy — he doesn’t miss meetings and informs himself very well. But the notion that we drive every single agenda item is completely wrong,” the aide said.
“Despite the image, I don’t believe [Mr. Cheney] has a personal agenda. He looks at everything through the prism of ‘September 11 changes everything.’ That naturally involves him intellectually in every aspect of it. But he doesn’t run anything — he’s just a voice in the process.”
Out in the world
One way for Mr. Powell to escape from Washington politics is to hop on his plane and fly overseas, where his image is still much better than it appears to be inside the Beltway. Dozens of leaders around the world seek his friendship and boast about their “close” relationship. His casual yet professional demeanor has become legendary.
Mr. Powell has more than once rejected suggestions that he does not travel enough. He also insists that much of the business can be done by telephone, which is how he won the crucial support of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf two days after September 11, 2001.
But Mrs. Albright said a “traveling secretary” is extremely important for achieving an effective foreign policy, because, in addition to “showing the flag,” he or she is an “action-forcing mechanism.”
“One, it creates the necessity for your own government bureaucracy to get its act together as to what the message will be, and then the place you are going to is trying to figure out how to respond,” she said.
Craig Kelly, Mr. Powell’s executive assistant and a Foreign Service officer for 19 years, said the secretary tries to balance “going out and seeing as many people as he can” with “the huge agenda here in Washington, where he is a major player.”
Mr. Kelly dismissed suggestions that Mr. Powell is afraid of being outmaneuvered in important White House meetings when he is away. Mr. Kelly said all of Mr. Bush’s key advisers, known as the principals, “want to be in those meetings — there is a lot at stake in there.”
Some of the concerns that Mr. Powell may not be the administration’s true foreign policy chief have traveled overseas. Foreign officials have expressed bewilderment at Mr. Rumsfeld’s venturing into foreign-policy territory, as have some current and former U.S. officials.
“What is the secretary of defense doing, saying that Germany and France are ‘old Europe’? It’s outrageous,” said a former senior State Department official.
But Mr. Powell said his record speaks for itself and he is quite capable of standing his ground. “It’s something that’s out there in the ether — people wondering, ‘I’m at the State Department, I’m getting eaten up by everybody else.’ “
But when you look at most foreign policy achievements in the administration’s first three years, he said, “you will find that we are more than carrying our weight and putting more than our finger on the scale.”
“It was this department that went to Pakistan on the 13th of September and said, ‘Musharraf, you’ve got to change. You’ve got to flip. You now have to turn against the Taliban.’ And he did. And it was done here, on this floor, all in response to what the president needed,” Mr. Powell said.
“When the president decided, with my advice, that he should take [the Iraq] case to the United Nations, it was this department that went and got what the president asked for — a resolution. Sometimes it was lonely fighting for those resolutions. But we did it — not because we are wimpy diplomats, but because that’s what the president wanted,” he said.
He then referred to his famous presentation at the United Nations on Iraq’s illicit arms programs, which the administration hoped would persuade the world that military action was necessary. Some of its contentions have yet to be proven right.
“It was your beloved State Department that went up there on the 5th of February last year and made the case on weapons of mass destruction. And why did they pick the State Department? Why was I the agent?”
Perhaps credibility, the reporter suggested.
“You’ve answered the question,” Mr. Powell said.
This article was first published by The Washington Times.