Great Promise, Muted Results
A year ago, more than 100,000 anti-American demonstrators stomped through the streets of London as President Bush met with Prime Minister Tony Blair about the troubled aftermath of the Iraq war.
But at a nearby hotel where U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was scheduled to speak, people who said they despised Bush stood waiting, hoping to win Powell’s autograph.
A former four-star general, hero of the Persian Gulf War and the first African American secretary of State, the 67-year-old Powell leaves office as he came: deeply respected and the most popular man in the Bush administration. Yet many analysts consider Powell -- a man who reaped success throughout his life -- a disappointment in a job that once seemed perfect for him.
“Never has a secretary of State taken office with such great expectations and left with such meager results,” said Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Democrats and moderate Republicans loved what they believed Powell stood for, viewing him as a leading voice of moderation in an administration known for hawkish positions. But some fault him for failing to halt what they saw as a rush to war in Iraq, for making the administration’s case for war before the United Nations and for failing to resign when he lost major foreign policy battles.
“He’s a good soldier, and a good soldier who oversees unwise policies does not fare well in the history books,” said Michael Krepon, former president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington think tank.
Two foreign diplomats said they felt sorry for Powell, believing he lost the battle with administration hawks over Iraq policy and fought to an uneasy stalemate over Iran and North Korea.
“He would have been a great secretary of State of another president,” said a senior European diplomat. “There was a kind of mismatch, a casting error,” between Bush and Powell, the diplomat added.
Many liberals think Powell’s reputation was tarnished after postwar revelations contradicted his presentation to the United Nations Security Council in which he asserted that Iraq possessed banned weapons.
But so-called neoconservatives in the administration whose views on foreign policy dominated Bush’s first term viewed Powell as a reluctant cheerleader for the president’s agenda. They made no secret of their desire to see Bush replace Powell at the president’s earliest convenience.
So for liberals and neoconservatives alike, said Philip H. Gordon of the Brookings Institution, “he has failed, because for the liberals, he’s just shilling for this neoconservative administration, and for the neocons he’s not really on the team.”
As Powell’s star fell, his future became an object of speculation. An article on Slate.com in February was titled, “The Tragedy of Colin Powell.” A GQ magazine story in June portrayed Powell as a “Casualty of War,” hard at work salvaging his legacy.
Outside Washington, Powell’s standing was scarcely in danger. His approval ratings have fallen from 88% shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to 68% last month, according to the Harris Poll. But the same polls suggest that he’s more popular than Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, every other Cabinet member, and leading politicians of both parties.
“He’s a rock star,” said a State Department official.
“He could have waltzed to the nomination in 2000 had he chosen to run” as a GOP presidential candidate, said Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in Washington.
Powell’s decision not to seek the presidency was a source of continuing sorrow to some admirers, who could not understand why Powell would subordinate himself to Bush, whom they considered less qualified.
Powell was a victim of unrealistic expectations, argued Harlan Ullman, a former National War College instructor and a close Powell friend. “The president is the president and if he’s strong-willed and if he thinks he’s right, there are going to be very few Cabinet secretaries who can turn him around,” Ullman said. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell was most famous for promoting the “Powell Doctrine,” which held that the U.S. should use military force only when it had the support of Congress and the American public. Powell asserted that any military engagement must also have an exit strategy, and said that when America did use force it should be overwhelming.
As secretary of State, he was famous for “Rolodex diplomacy” as a tireless telephone warrior who arrived at his desk promptly at 6:30 a.m. and spent hours calling foreign counterparts to advance his agenda. He cultivated broad alliances for a president who chose few allies.
Although charismatic, Powell did not advance the sweeping foreign policy vision put forward by counterparts at the Pentagon and White House. Critics said Powell was known for caution, but left the State Department vulnerable to the agendas of others in the administration.
“He allowed the State Department to be run over by the global war on terror, and did not fully articulate a positive view of what the United States is for, its capacity to inspire as well as its ability to intimidate,” said Alan Henrikson, a diplomatic historian at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Two close friends said Powell’s view of his job description was entirely different from that envisioned by his critics.
Ullman and another close Powell associate described the secretary of State as a pragmatist uncomfortable with the strong ideological cast of the administration. But they said Powell thought his job was not to develop a grandiose foreign policy vision but to give the best possible advice to the president.
“As Colin Powell sees it, he works for one person -- the president,” said the second friend, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He didn’t always agree with the president. In many cases he didn’t agree with other people at the table.... [But] the president is a person who values honesty.... Colin Powell has been honest with the president and that’s all that really counts in his mind.”
Inside the sprawling State Department building in the Washington neighborhood known as Foggy Bottom, Powell was widely hailed as the most beloved leader since George P. Schultz served President Reagan 20 years ago. Powell fought for his diplomats, insisting on better security for foreign embassies. He modernized the State Department computer system. He was seen as benevolent, courteous to subordinates and gracious to his press entourage.
Yet the reverence for Powell inside the State Department represented evidence to conservatives that Powell had been captured by a culture of liberal career foreign service officers who spent their days explaining the views of foreign governments to Washington.
Powell did a poor job of selling American policies abroad, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich argued in a scathing attack on Powell’s leadership and loyalty in a Foreign Policy magazine article last year.
“For all the vaunted reputation of Powell with supposedly our European allies, it’s not clear that he’s done a particularly good job,” said Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New American Century, a leading conservative group. “Partially that’s because he’s also relied upon a State Department bureaucracy that doesn’t really have its heart with the president on a lot of these new initiatives.”
Some said the conflict between Bush’s political appointees in the State Department and the career foreign service officers worsened during the presidential campaign.
Powell “is a manager who takes responsibility for his subordinates, who believes in the chain of command and relies on the people who work for him,” a conservative with close ties to the administration said last week before Powell announced his resignation. “On the other hand, he is indiscriminate in relying on the people who work for him, and [for many, their] prime job was to get rid of George W. Bush.
“He’s a great guy, he’s such a nice man, a decent man, who respects and protects his subordinates,” the person added. “Those are wonderful traits, but they don’t necessarily make you a great secretary of State. They make you a great boss.”
Powell seemed personally unaffected by either the policy battles with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Cheney, or verbal attacks from other conservatives. But friends had said they would be surprised if Powell would serve more than four years in such a punishing job.
“He is very tired, not because the neocons have worn him down but
Still, before Powell’s resignation, his friends agreed that Powell probably would have agreed to stay if Bush had asked him. They noted that Powell had never said no to any president.
The lingering question about Powell’s tenure is why he did not use his popularity inside the Republican Party, gamble on his stature, and use the time-honored tactic of threatening to resign when the president did not take his advice on Iraq. Powell has never admitted to differences with his commander in chief.
“One of the reasons George Shultz was a successful secretary of State was that he went to Ronald Reagan and threatened to resign at least three times,” said a former Reagan administration official. “As far as I know, Colin Powell never threatened to resign. He never used the power he possessed.”
The senior European diplomat said such a move was not in Powell’s character.
“He’s very intelligent, he’s very courageous, but his idea of serving the president is certainly not to abandon the president in a difficult moment,” the diplomat said.
Times staff writers Doyle McManus and Tyler Marshall contributed to this report.