Soldier who lost the will to fight

The son of black immigrants, Colin Powell overcame poverty and prejudice to hold high office. Rupert Cornwell looks back on his political career
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The Independent US

He might have been on the losing end of most of the policy battles that mattered. His going, moreover, was widely expected. Nonetheless the resignation of Colin Powell, when it actually became fact yesterday, was one of those events which, for a moment at least, stops the world in its tracks.

He might have been on the losing end of most of the policy battles that mattered. His going, moreover, was widely expected. Nonetheless the resignation of Colin Powell, when it actually became fact yesterday, was one of those events which, for a moment at least, stops the world in its tracks.

At one level, the event is a matter of history, perhaps the last milestone in one of the most remarkable stories in 20th-century US public life. Born in the Bronx, General Powell, 67, was the son of humble Jamaican immigrants who transcended his origins and his race to become a four-star general and then national security adviser to the president. Later, as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, he was the most senior uniformed military officer in the land, and an architect of the first Gulf War waged by the first President George Bush.

Under the second President Bush, he rose higher still, to serve as the country's first African-American Secretary of State. He has consistently been the most popular member of Cabinet, with ratings that far outstripped those of the President himself.

He was of a vanishing breed; a moderate who appealed across party lines. Abroad he was perceived as the human face of an administration that otherwise seemed to lack one. As a role model, modern America has had few to match him.

Of late, there has been talk of him taking over as chairman of the World Bank, or as a special envoy for Mr Bush, perhaps for the Middle East. But almost certainly, the career of Colin Luther Powell at the summit of American public life is over - amid a lingering feeling that a glittering career could have been even more gleaming still.

The disappointment is twofold. Those with longer memories will wonder whether he could have become America's first black president, had he decided to run against Bill Clinton in 1996, when the Republican nomination was his for the taking. But after much heart-searching he declined - not least because of the objections of his wife, Alma.

But the second disappointment for General Powell's legions of admirers is more recent and more painful. When he was named Secretary of State, the sky seemed the limit. Morale surged at a department that had been trampled on by Congress, and had previously been led by comparative lightweights in Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright.

The General's first press conference at the Department in January 2001 was an occasion more befitting a rock star than a diplomat. He took over as a figure of massive charisma, prestige and authority, and an acknowledged master of bureaucratic manoeuvre. Unlike his two predecessors, he could be counted upon to prevail in Washington's power struggles.

In retrospect, however, it was downhill all the way from there. Even before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it was clear that neo-conservatives and hard-liners were winning the battle for President Bush's ear. More often than not General Powell - moderate, gradualist and internationalist - found himself in a minority against Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defence, and Dick Cheney, the most powerful Vice-President of modern times.

Iraq laid the divisions even barer. Running battles between the Pentagon and the State Department are nothing new but the arguments between the "Powellites" at State and Mr Rumsfeld's office at the Defense Department turned rivalry into mutual contempt.

It was said that one reason General Powell travelled less than his predecessors was because he feared that if he left town, Messrs Rumsfeld and Cheney would take advantage to stage policy coups against him. But even when General Powell was in Washington, that tended to happen. The evidence is strong that deep down, he opposed the March 2003 invasion (though loyal trooper that he is, he would never admit it). Unquestionably, however, his approach to the conflict was cautious. Alas, it was unavailing.

The "Powell Doctrine" of using overwhelming force to secure Iraq was jettisoned in favour of Mr Rumsfeld's 21st-century version of Blitzkrieg - which lead to the lack of forces that has plagued US commanders ever since. Disastrously, and despite General Powell's objections, the Pentagon, not State, was put in charge of the occupation. At one point, it seemed, any diplomat with real knowledge of Iraq and the Arab world was disqualified from being sent to Baghdad.

Should he have resigned? Yes, opponents of the Iraq invasion would say. But that is to ignore the conventions of US government. Resignations on principled issues of policy are not the norm here. Cy Vance, who quit in 1980 over his opposition to President Jimmy Carter's plan to mount a raid to rescue US hostages in Iran, is the only Secretary of State in modern times to have done so.

Colin Powell, the good soldier and team player par excellence, was never likely to follow that example. Famously, shortly before the war began, he cited the so-called "Pottery Barn" rule - "You break it, you own it" - to remind the President that, by overthrowing Saddam Hussein, the US would become responsible for putting the country together again. But that was as far as resistance went.

With some reluctance, he agreed to go to the United Nations six weeks before the war to make the Bush administration's case to the Security Council that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. Beforehand, the Secretary of State spent an entire weekend cloistered at the CIA, poring over the evidence.

In New York, General Powell delivered as powerful and convincing a performance as he could muster, complete with satellite photos, audio tapes and transcripts of US intelligence intercepts - even the brandishing of a vial of white powder that might have been anthrax spores. Alas for the retired General, it was rubbish.

As the months passed with not a trace of an illicit weapon, General Powell's discomfort grew. To friends, he admitted his distress. In retrospect, 5 February 2003 marked the nadir of his reputation, and it has not truly recovered since.

His letter of resignation predictably gave no hint of disappointment or inner turmoil. He thanked the President for "the honour of serving in his administration", and of being "part of the team that launched the global war on terror and liberated the people of Iraq and Afghanistan". But many suspected that, for all his weariness at the lost battles with the Pentagon and the Vice-President's office, General Powell was increasingly inclined to stay on for a while into a second Bush term, in a bid to re-burnish his reputation. The death of Yasser Arafat, and the possible new opening in the search for a Middle-East settlement, could only have strengthened such hankerings. But in the end he decided enough was enough.

So how will history judge him? "The conventional wisdom is that he has been the loser in the great bureaucratic war, and that's probably true," says Dr Michael Mandelbaum of the Council of Foreign Relations. At best, General Powell's foreign policy record is mixed. He failed to prevent Mr Bush from adopting a much harder policy than Mr Clinton towards North Korea - an approach that has proved equally unsuccessful in deterring its nuclear ambitions.

During the Powell era the Middle East has gone from bad to worse (though once Mr Bush had made it clear that he would have no truck with Yasser Arafat, there was probably nothing that any US diplomat could have done).

Despite his best efforts, and his immense popularity in Europe, he could not head off a profound split between the US and traditional allies like France and Germany. Once again Powell the moderate lost out to the Rumsfelds and Cheneys of this world, who were convinced that US power was such that Washington could ignore international opinion and the hand-wringing of "Old Europe".

But there have been achievements, such as his role in the $5bn Millennium Challenge initiative to fight poverty and aid developing countries. The State Department, moreover, seems to have won control of US policy towards China, a relationship on which global stability in the 21st century may depend. Then there are the less quantifiable successes, foremost among them the revitalisation of the US foreign service. It may not seem so, after the bruising struggles within the administration, but under General Powell the State Department has been a happier place. He has inspired deep affection in his staff, with his warm, personal style, his willingness to delegate to the desk officials who knew a policy area best, and his loyalty.

So General Powell will depart before Mr Bush's second inauguration on 20 January 2005. Oddly, as Mr Mandelbaum points out, "he will do so just when the President appears to have come around to a more Powellian view of the world" - when the limits of "go-it-alone" have been cruelly exposed, and fence mending, bridge building and multilateralism are edging back into favour.

Much of America, not to mention the world, will be sad to see him go. But there will be many claims on his time. His family for one, doubtless a new set of memoirs and, of course, his predilection of decades - tinkering with ancient Volvos.