Dearth of a Salesman

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

There is general agreement in political circles that Colin Powell is a great American but a poor secretary of State. The reasons for this judgment differ by political persuasion. The right is miffed because he wasn’t supportive enough of the president’s hawkish agenda. The left is upset because he didn’t do enough to oppose that program. Neither view captures the whole truth.

Powell obviously had reservations about some of the president’s actions, notably the invasion of Iraq (he opposed the 1991 war against Saddam Hussein too), and he wasn’t shy about leaking his discomfort to his favorite amanuensis, Bob Woodward. But, like a good (if slightly discontented) soldier, he took the view that once the commander in chief made a decision, it was his responsibility to carry it out.

There is nothing wrong with this attitude, nor with Powell’s advocacy of views sharply different from those of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. A president benefits from a healthy internal debate, as long as that doesn’t lead to policy paralysis, as has sometimes happened over vital issues like Iran and North Korea. But that’s not all Powell’s fault. Much of the blame lies at the elegantly clad feet of his successor, Condoleezza Rice, whose job at the National Security Council was to arbitrate disputes between the State and Defense departments.


The real problem with Powell’s tenure is that he did not do a very good job of selling the administration’s policies, whether because his heart wasn’t in it or because he simply wasn’t very good at it. This sweeping judgment must be slightly qualified. Powell did have a few successes, the most notable one being his mobilization of a broad coalition after 9/11. U.S. forces would not have been able to topple the Taliban without gaining basing rights in such neighboring countries as Uzbekistan and Pakistan. Powell skillfully leaned on local rulers to open the way for U.S. troops and to cut off aid to the Taliban.

Powell had less success gathering a coalition for the invasion of Iraq, though again it wasn’t all his fault. He did a convincing job of presenting the administration’s case at the United Nations in February 2003, even if much of his evidence has since been discredited. But he could not win a resolution authorizing military action, casting into doubt his strategy of relying so heavily on the U.N. in the first place.

Even worse, Powell failed to secure Turkey’s support for the war, a failure for which we are still paying a heavy price because it precluded the dispatch of heavy forces from the north to crush resistance in the Sunni Triangle.

Critics derided Powell for not traveling to Turkey, as Secretary of State James Baker did before the Persian Gulf War. This was sadly typical of Powell’s tenure. He traveled less than any secretary of State in 30 years. It was not entirely a coincidence that the U.S. image in the world sank to new lows while Powell busied himself at Foggy Bottom.

Telephone calls and meetings with foreign ministers in New York and Washington are fine, but they’re not enough to win the battle for hearts and minds. We need a secretary of State who travels incessantly to explain and defend American policies.

In the age of satellite television, no nation can afford to have striped-pants diplomats whose activities are limited to cocktail parties. The model should be Oprah Winfrey, not Dean Acheson.

Unfortunately, public diplomacy has been emasculated since the end of the Cold War. American libraries abroad have been shut down. Resources have been shifted from the U.S. Information Agency, which was merged into the State Department in 1999 by the unholy alliance of Madeleine Albright and Jesse Helms.

The problem is compounded by the choice of ambassadors to high-profile postings. The appointments go to big campaign donors -- wealthy businessmen who usually lack either the skills or the inclination for the rough and tumble of public debate. The last U.S. ambassador in London was more interested in talking about horse racing with the queen than talking about the Iraq war with the average bloke in the street.

Because the major challenge for the next secretary of State will be to win over critics of the U.S. abroad, it would have made sense to appoint a seasoned politician with centrist credibility -- someone like Sam Nunn, John Danforth or Joe Lieberman. Instead, Bush chose Condi Rice.

Much of the news coverage has focused on whether her appointment augurs a change in policy. The answer is almost certainly no, because the president makes the decisions and always has.

The real question is whether she can do a better job of selling those policies abroad than Powell did.