Steven MufsonPowell at odds with others on policy
Monday, July 31, 2000
No moment encapsulates the foreign policy view of Gen. Colin L. Powell more than a 1993 confrontation he had with Madeleine K. Albright, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, during a Clinton administration internal debate over how to punish Bosnian Serbs for shelling Sarajevo.>
Powell angered Albright by arguing that airstrikes weren't likely to change Serb behavior, and that sending in U.S. ground troops would risk substantial casualties. "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?" Albright asked pointedly.
Powell wrote later in his memoirs, "I thought I would have an aneurysm. American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board."
If George W. Bush wins the presidential election this year, Powell could once again be in the middle of such frays this time with members of his own Republican Party. Leading Republicans say Powell is the most likely person to serve as secretary of state if Bush wins, and the Republican National Convention today will showcase the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose compelling life story and military experience have helped make him one of the party's most popular figures.
But while Powell could prove a potent political asset in this fall's presidential campaign, if he became secretary of state the past suggests he could find himself at odds with the other key makers of foreign and defense policy within the Bush camp. Most Bush advisers and many conservative Republicans have backed more aggressive use of the U.S. military for such purposes as ousting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, defending Taiwan against Chinese intimidation and promoting democracy in the Balkans.
Shaped by his experiences in Vietnam, however, Powell used his positions under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton to warn about the dangers of U.S. intervention, the need for clear political objectives and the need to deploy overwhelming military force to achieve those objectives.
During a coup attempt against Philippine President Corazon Aquino, Powell backed U.S. fighter jet warning flights, but no bombing. After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Powell initially suggested that the United States limit itself to the defense of Saudi Arabia rather than seek to oust Iraqi troops from Kuwait a stance that tested his otherwise close relationship with then-Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney, who is now George W. Bush's choice for vice president. And in the Balkans, he consistently opposed U.S. intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo.
In his book, "The Commanders," Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward recounted that Powell kept a quote from the Athenian historian Thucydides under the glass covering on his Pentagon desk: "Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most."
Some analysts believe that restraint can be overdone.
"If you believe in strong American geopolitical leadership, you've got to believe that Powell's cautious instincts have been wrong on the big calls [such as] the Gulf and the Balkans," said Tom Donnelly of the Project for a New American Century, a conservative think tank. "I worry he'd be too accommodating to China too."
Powell's views on other key foreign policy issues economic, social and environmental remain unknown. He has limited experience in dealing with South America or Asia. China, one of the potentially explosive foreign policy issues for the next administration, goes virtually unmentioned in Powell's 617-page autobiography.
At the same time, however, Powell would bring to the State Department a powerful voice to counterbalance the better-funded Pentagon and influential National Security Council. His supporters, who are widespread and include people from both parties, say his stature and managerial experience could revive a dispirited department.
"Powell would be a helluva choice," said Chas Freeman, who was U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War and who also dealt with Powell in Washington. Freeman said Powell possesses all four attributes needed in a secretary of state: strategic thinking; command presence; managerial ability; and the ability to articulate his views and persuade members of Congress and allies.
His achievements are many. Catapulted into the political arena by a White House fellowship in 1972, Powell went on to win the trust of top Reagan and Bush administration officials. A four-star general, he was the youngest-ever chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and coordinated Operation Desert Storm to oust Iraq from Kuwait. Partly in response to Powell's concerns, the United States committed a huge force and crushed Iraqi forces in a ground attack that lasted just 100 hours.
He was one of the first senior military policymakers to recognize that the end of the Cold War would require a leaner, more mobile military and he led efforts to plan for that.
And many people applaud his concerns about deploying U.S. forces. According to Powell's autobiography, during his confrontation with Albright, then national security adviser Anthony Lake said, "You know, Madeleine, the kinds of questions Colin is asking about goals are exactly the ones the military never asked during Vietnam."
Appointing a career military man to head the State Department would not be unprecedented. Gen. George C. Marshall served as secretary of state under President Harry S. Truman and Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr. served as secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan.
Moreover, Powell has been an unusually political general. Except for four brief command assignments, none longer than 15 months, Powell served in Washington from 1969 until his retirement in 1993. He held a succession of increasingly powerful and political jobs, including a stint as Reagan's national security adviser.
His acquaintances include not only military colleagues but members of Congress, and key players across the political spectrum. He plays racquetball with Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan and counts Democratic superlawyer and Clinton golf partner Vernon E. Jordan Jr. as a friend.
"Colin Powell has been the most powerful military leader since George C. Marshall, the most popular since Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the most political since Douglas MacArthur," wrote Richard H. Kohn, a professor specializing in military affairs at the University of North Carolina. "The real question is whether he's capable of growing, like George Marshall, or will he remain bound by his experience like Al Haig."
Kohn is skeptical. "I don't think he has any developed vision of American power or purpose," he said. "I think in many ways Powell is a man who was captured by his experiences, particularly the Vietnam War."
Another skeptic is Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and professor of international relations at Boston University. He calls Powell's legacy "ephemeral," noting that Bush intervened in Somalia and launched the first post-Desert Storm pinprick air attacks against Baghdad without any overwhelming force, clear objectives or vital national interests. Clinton has expanded on that in Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq and Kosovo.
In the post-Cold War era, "the American military has been converted into a global constabulary, maintaining order [and] propping up U.S. claims to leadership. My bet is that the next administration will be unable to reverse course . . . even with Powell as secretary of state."
But if Powell's guidelines for intervention commonly known as the Powell Doctrine have faded in practice, Powell's political star has remained bright.
Indeed, when he retired in 1993, many members of the Clinton administration were concerned that Powell would return as a rival presidential candidate. Later, Clinton tried unsuccessfully to get Powell to return as secretary of state.
And even his critics still hold him in high regard. Ivo Daalder, a former Clinton administration official who differed with Powell on the use of U.S. force in the Balkans, nonetheless says that Powell raises the right questions and "is the kind of guy who should be secretary of state no matter who is elected."