Posted on February 26, 2001 in Washington Watch

It is difficult not to be impressed by Secretary of State Colin Powell. Even his critics acknowledge his hard work, his discipline and his loyal service to America. Beyond that, there is his character, his obvious intellect and his personal charisma.

Some have asked how easy would it be for Powell to make the shift from military to civilian life? Reading his autobiography, My American Journey, listening to his speeches or engaging the man in discussion, it becomes clear that the transition was quite easy. He understands and thinks deeply about security issues, to be sure, but he also quotes freely from Dr. Martin Luther King and Thomas Jefferson. Powell has struggled not only with foreign policy questions. He has worked, as well, to develop a broader philosophical worldview that is consistent with and shaped by his personal life experience.

In his autobiography, Powell describes his life story as follows:

    “Mine is the story of a black kid of no early promise from an immigrant family of limited means who was raised in the South Bronx and somehow rose to become National Security Advisor to the President of the United States and then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is a story of hard work and good luck …It is a story of service and soldiering. It is a story about the people who helped make me what I am. It is a story of my benefiting from opportunities created by the sacrifice of those who went before me and maybe my benefiting those who will follow. It is a story of faith-faith in myself and faith in America….It’s a love story: love of family, of friends. Of the Army and of my country.”

His African American heritage, his government service, the loyalty of his family and friends, his profound respect for the values of democracy and the opportunities of freedom-these are the matters that have formed Colin Powell.

So this is the man that Arab leaders will meet in his new role this week. When they last met Powell, he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff-the top U.S. military leader, who had overall responsibility during the Gulf War.

Some critics writing of this period described Powell as “the reluctant warrior,” because they alleged that he resisted military engagement that had ill-defined goals. Powell, shaped by his Vietnam experience and the young friends he saw die in that long conflict, has indeed raised legitimate questions about the use of force. War is, he has said, “the last resort” and should not be used casually. He has also been reported to have resisted the engagement in Somalia and early efforts to use a piece-meal approach to force in Bosnia.

Despite efforts by critics to harm his reputation, he defended his position, was supported by former President Bush and at the end of the Gulf War was universally praised as “an American hero.”

After leaving the military in 1993, Powell became the hottest political property in the United States. With popularity ratings often times above 80 percent, he was eagerly sought after by both political parties. Even before he retired, some Republicans had proposed him as former President Bush’s Vice Presidential running mate in 1992. It was falsely reported that Clinton had offered him the role of Secretary of State early in his Administration.

Powell chose, however, to spend private time with this family and used the time to develop his broader political views. When he finally declared his affinity with the Republican Party in 1995, there were strong indications that he might seek the Republican nomination for President in 1996.

Because of his announced moderate views on civil rights, affirmative action, abortion and the positive role of government, hard line conservatives launched a bitter assault on Powell. Even though he chose not to run that year, his political star remained bright. Many observers note that George W. Bush’s strong suggestion, during the 2000 campaign, that he would name Powell as Secretary of State helped the Texas Governor win the support of those who questioned Bush’s ability to manage foreign affairs.

When Bush was elected and made Powell his first appointment, it enhanced the stature of the new Administration. Powell won quick confirmation from an admiring Senate.

Now Secretary of State, Powell faces what may be the most serious challenges of his career.

The Department that he has been called upon to manage has suffered a serious decline in morale during the past several administrations. Career diplomats at the Department have sometimes felt shoved aside in policy-making as political appointees were positioned to manage critical issues in foreign affairs.

The State Department also suffers from a dramatic lack of funds. Despite having more than 20,000 employees and responsibility for representing the United States in more than 250 posts around the world, the Department budget has significantly declined in the past two decades. The result has been an agency plagued by too few employees and antiquated equipment.

Powell is working to reverse both problems. His star power in Congress will certainly assist the Department in lobbying for needed funds. And there are already reports of an improved morale among Foreign Service employees. Powell has been consulting with the career staff and sought ways to involve them in efforts to reevaluate and formulate foreign policy.

The new Secretary of State will also face problems of interagency competition in policy making. This is a normal fact of life in Washington, so much so that former Clinton National Security Advisor Anthony Lake once wrote a book on the history of rivalry between past presidents’ national security advisors and their secretaries of state. Reporters are already speculating that in this Bush Administration Powell’s competitors will most likely come from Secretary Donald Rumsfield at the Pentagon and even Vice President Richard Cheney who, it is reported, is in the process of building his one high-powered staff of national security advisors that will report directly to his Chief of Staff. Now much of this speculation come from foreign policy hawks and conservatives who may be projecting their own concerns with Powell’s moderation.

Whatever the reality, Powell will be a force with which to contend. He has fought political battles inside administrations before and emerged a winner. He knows the rules and he knows how to secure his place.

But then there is the world. Powell begins his tenure as the top U.S. diplomat facing a set of world conflicts and potential crises no less serious than those he faced when he left government service seven years ago. This is, of course, especially true in the Middle East, where Powell will be confronted with the same two dilemmas the Bush Administration left in 1992: the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the stand-off with Iraq.

With Secretary Powell now in the Middle East, he is, no doubt, hearing the serious questions that Arab leaders and public opinion have about U.S. policies on both the Iraq and Palestinian fronts.

While Governor Bush was critical of Clinton’s Iraq policy during the 2000 campaign, as President he has appeared to adopt the same formula: reinvigorated sanctions, continued containment, and regime change. Today, these policies have far less regional support then they did eight years ago. The effort to confront Iraq is further complicated by the public relations and, to some degree, recent economic successes of the Baghdad regime. Many of Iraq’s former enemies are trading with the regime and the walls of isolation, that the U.S. hoped would limit the Iraqi leader’s external contact, are now crumbling.

The Arab world will also raise serious questions about the U.S. role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. There is continued concern with the U.S. double standard and fear that an unstable and extremist Sharon-led government in Israel may create new provocations against the Palestinians or the Lebanese or Syrians.

As Powell was to embark on his visit the Bush Administration took some confusing and mixed actions on both Middle East fronts. By bombing Iraq for the second time in one week, they made clear that the initial strike was not to be viewed as an isolated event. In describing the goals of the attack, however, the President appeared to leave open the possibility that his Administration might be using the Powell visit to take a new policy direction on sanctions and containment that could win regional support.

On the Palestinian front, the Administration also took some mixed actions that should be noted. In meetings with Palestinian Authority leaders visiting Washington, Powell and his Assistant Secretary reportedly insisted that the Palestinian Authority take steps to halt violence. The Palestinians were also told that the U.S. would not, at this point, engage in trilateral talks, making it clear that the Bush Administration approach would differ from that of the Clinton Administration.

To the Israeli side, the Secretary and his Department’s spokesperson offered both support for a continued strong U.S.-Israeli relationship and a number of criticisms as well-some subtle, others more direct. Mr. Powell, for example, directly urged the Israelis to release tax revenues currently being withheld from the Palestinian Authority. Last week, as a State Department spokesperson reiterated the U.S. criticism of Israel’s policy of assassinating Palestinian leaders he also noted that the State Department was reviewing complaints that U.S weapons have been used by Israel in violation of U.S. law. And on the day Powell left to begin his Middle East tour, the State Department issued its annual human rights report, which included a sharp critique of Israel’s treatment of both Palestinians and the Arab citizens of Israel.

It is clear that the Administration has not yet formulated a comprehensive approach to deal with these two critical Middle East conflicts. In this context, Powell’s visit, his first as a civilian leader, is very important. In meetings with Arab leaders he will state his views and he will listen. He will then return to Washington to continue the process of reevaluating and then formulating U.S. policy.

One can not envy Secretary Powell’s predicament. The two conflicts are complicated in and of themselves. Human lives and regional stability are at stake. America’s vital interests are also at stake, as is its prestige and leadership. And yet any U.S. policy response ultimately formulated must also take into consideration strong pressure from powerful domestic political forces-in particular, neo-conservatives and the religious right, both of whom supported President Bush’s candidacy. It is not the first time Powell, “the black kid…from the South Bronx” has faced such obstacles, but these challenges may present him his greatest tests yet.

For comments, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org.

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