Colin Powell and the failure of US diplomacy

It does not take much imagination to suspect that Iraq would not have been Powell's sort of war
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How hopeful the world seemed then, and how distant that world seems now. When Colin Powell was confirmed as US Secretary of State, his first act was to call all his staff together and give them a pep talk about the noble tradition of American diplomacy. It was a thoughtful and necessary morale boost for a department mired in petty scandals about missing laptop computers, and downcast over Bill Clinton's last failed effort to secure Middle East peace. The new head of US diplomacy was ecstatically applauded.

Now, more than a year before the next election, Mr Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, have signalled that they will not serve a second term, even if George Bush is re-elected. In a way, this is no surprise. Few expected Mr Powell to serve more than one term. He had never concealed his distrust of politics and had to be cajoled by Mr Bush to join the administration at all. Chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff during the 1991 Gulf War, Mr Powell had retired to found a charity for disadvantaged young blacks.

When he agreed to join Mr Bush's campaign team, two factors seem to have swayed him. The first was the offer of the State Department, which would capitalise on his wide international experience. The other was his highly developed sense of duty. As a black, moderate Republican, he appreciated Mr Bush's stated intention to form an administration that was ethnically and philosophically inclusive. Like some other moderates in the Bush administration - most now departed - Mr Powell may also have felt responsible for giving moderates a voice in the innermost recesses of power.

Yet Mr Powell was never one of the Bush crowd, and never really assimilated. Visiting the Bush ranch at Crawford before the formal announcement of his nomination, he arrived in a navy blazer and grey flannels. Noting the discrepancy between his garb and Mr Bush's well-worn denims, the four-star general quipped to reporters: "You see, I don't do ranch wear."

Mr Powell didn't do ideology either. Nor, one may deduce from his reticence over the past year, does America's senior military veteran-turned-diplomat do unilateral foreign policy or pre-emptive wars. His natural preference is for a co-operative approach and, as a former soldier who has seen combat, he would rather not see American troops go into battle if fighting can possibly be avoided. It does not take much imagination to suspect that Iraq would have been very much not Mr Powell's sort of war.

Misgivings about the war, augmented by the US failure to find those much-vaunted weapons of mass destruction, may explain why Mr Powell has put his eventual departure in the public domain now. He had, after all, given one of the most authoritative presentations about Iraq's supposed weapons at a crucial time in the UN Security Council's discussions.

But there are other possible explanations for the reports about his departure and their timing. By signalling that he will step down, but not yet, they clarify that Mr Powell has no intention of resigning immediately, so fending off pressure for him to go. The fact that Mr Powell and Mr Armitage - much more a Bush type than Mr Powell - apparently intend to leave together also suggests that they may view US diplomacy under their tutelage as unsuccessful and are offering Mr Bush a clean slate, should he win a second term.

If so, Mr Powell has reason to feel aggrieved. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 undercut his authority and that of administration moderates at a time when they were competing on equal terms with hardliners for the President's ear. By remaining in his job, however, even after the prevailing mood of the administration shifted, Mr Powell also allowed himself to be used.

Known as a moderate, and an honest broker with a cosmopolitan outlook, Mr Powell was a huge asset to Mr Bush in persuading other countries, especially in Europe, that his administration could be persuaded to take a multilateral, co-operative approach. Public opinion was almost won over; Europe's professional diplomats were merely confused.

If there is to be a clear-out at the State Department before a second Bush administration, the widespread assumption is that this last repository of relative liberalism will be yanked to the right. Condoleezza Rice, the current National Security Adviser, could become Secretary of State, with Paul Wolfowitz, one of the chief proponents of the Iraq war, moved to the National Security Council. Thus a second Bush administration would at least be speaking with one voice, even if we foreigners didn't like what it said.

This assumption, however, is premature. The continued ascendancy of the hawkish right depends to a large extent on the course of events in Iraq. American deaths, spiralling costs and the reluctance of other countries to help out are quietly pushing President Bush into a more co-operative relationship even with the United Nations. The "Rumsfeld doctrine" of smaller, lighter armies has been challenged by the reality of occupation, and Mr Wolfowitz returned from a recent visit to Iraq a quieter and less ideological warmonger than when he left. Foreign policy is rarely a determining issue in presidential elections. But the combination of Iraq and those empty chairs at the State Department could well ensure that it is high on the agenda for 2004.