Powell Valediction

Secretary of State Colin Powell has always believed in alliances and quiet diplomacy -- except when it comes to dealing with his colleagues in the Bush administration.

As I was completing this essay, I experienced one of those random moments that make my supposed profession worthwhile. I had been invited for a Foggy Bottom chat with Amb. Richard Boucher, the State Department's chief spokesman. He took me deftly over and around the various hurdles involved in any Colin Powell retrospect, and demonstrated the diplomatic adroitness that has endeared him to so many correspondents, and seemed almost to smooth away much of the jaggedness. And then we got to Darfur.

As I was completing this essay, I experienced one of those random moments that make my supposed profession worthwhile. I had been invited for a Foggy Bottom chat with Amb. Richard Boucher, the State Department’s chief spokesman. He took me deftly over and around the various hurdles involved in any Colin Powell retrospect, and demonstrated the diplomatic adroitness that has endeared him to so many correspondents, and seemed almost to smooth away much of the jaggedness. And then we got to Darfur.

Boucher began a practiced response, speaking about "process" and bargaining and about pipelines of food and medicine and all of that, especially stressing the horrible fate of those herders and villagers who had been "caught in the middle." I like to think that he saw the question forming on my lips, but, before I could get any further, he suddenly underwent a complete change of expression. "Actually," he said, as if half-talking to himself, "they aren’t ‘caught in the middle.’ There is no middle. No middle to be caught in. The word ‘middle’ doesn’t apply." After a short pause I asked if that had been, or could now be, for the record. He said "yeah."

This was a useful tip-off to the content of Secretary Powell’s testimony on Capitol Hill about a week later, when he broke with the cautious language that some had been employing and stated in more-or-less round terms that the conduct of the racist Arab-Muslim death squads in Darfur conformed to the definition of genocide. It is always encouraging when the department shakes off the dusty euphemisms that make up the small change of diplomatic habit. Taken together with the focus he has developed on the AIDS catastrophe now menacing Africa, it can be said of Darfur that Powell will be able to point to a monument, or at any rate a benchmark, for his time in office. It may also be said, of this high point, that few things became Secretary Powell’s tenure more than the leaving of it.

Previously, a sense of dankness and exhaustion was palpable in the department. I might instance the uninspired announcement, shortly before I paid my call, that the secretary of state would not be traveling to Athens to represent the United States at the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games after all. The Department of State, which made the announcement only on the day of Powell’s planned departure, gave various official and unofficial explanations for this extremely short-notice cancellation. No, the secretary was not especially concerned about security. (A demonstration of 2,000 people organized by leftists and anarchists on the preceding Friday had been mild by Athenian standards, and much worse was predicted. The forces of international terrorism had stayed away altogether.) On the other hand, one State Department official said, the secretary "didn’t want anything untoward and did not want the complications of any visit to distract from the end of a very successful Olympics." Poorly phrased as it was, this might have been an intelligible reason for declining to attend the ceremony in the first place. But as an excuse for withdrawing at the last possible moment, it sounded a bit hollow and graceless. Another State Department aide only made matters worse (and perhaps went somewhat "off message") when he revealed that Secretary Powell had been the one to ask the White House if he could represent the United States at the ceremony. It shows a fair degree of vanity to suppose that one’s own presence, booked or unbooked, could by itself be a "distraction" from a global gala on the Olympic scale. And by this standard, if it is a standard, the United States should always avoid high-level attendance at major international gatherings.

Would I be straining the patience of the reader if I extended this example just a little further? The Greek authorities spent an estimated $1.2 billion on surveillance and security systems for the games, much of it at U.S. urging. The newly enlarged NATO alliance contributed air, land, and sea forces to guarantee further protection. In addition to attending the ceremony, the secretary was to have met officials in Athens to review developments in Cyprus. And Colin Powell canceled just like that.

The combined weariness and solipsism of this behavior sent me back to read the profile of the secretary, by Wil Hylton in an issue of GQ two months earlier. Here we were told on the record by Powell’s chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson, that the secretary was "tired. Mentally and physically. And if the president were to ask him to stay on — if the president is reelected and the president were to ask him to stay on, he might for a transitional period, but I don’t think he’d want to do another four years." In addition to this, we gathered from Wilkerson, it had been a bit much putting up with all the neoconservatives the president had also seen fit to hire. A bit more than a bit much, to judge by this remark: "I don’t care whether utopians are Vladimir Lenin on a sealed train to Moscow or Paul Wolfowitz." (This allusion to Washingtonian Bolshevism is eclipsed in an undenied remark in Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack, in which the secretary himself refers to Dick Cheney supporters in the Pentagon as the "Gestapo office.")

From William Jennings Bryan to Cyrus Vance, history used to suggest a remedy for secretaries of state who became demoralized or disillusioned with the policies pursued by their presidents: resignation. More than just quitting, resignation also at least implies an acceptance of responsibility (as it did, for example, when Lord Carrington resigned as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s foreign secretary over the Falklands imbroglio). But with Powell, one has never been entirely sure whether he considers collective responsibility to be a part of his cabinet rank. Instead, he offers a grudging willingness to stay on, for a little bit at least, if invited — no, make that pressed — to do so. This attitude is normally associated either with insufferable guests, or with people who appear to believe that they are performing the thankless task of holding up the sky.

Neither a Bush nor — one assumes — a Kerry presidency will now feature Colin Powell as secretary of state. So the time has come to ask: Will he be as much missed as all that? What were the qualities that defined his stewardship? One can be reasonably certain of what the secretary, and his partisans, would want to have said of him. In general, he preferred the arts of diplomacy, patience, and negotiation to the murk of war and the yells of combat. Very well. How ably did he vindicate this preference?

In the early months of the Bush administration, Powell certainly did crucial work in defusing a potentially ugly and vertiginous conflict that erupted suddenly after the April 1, 2001, collision of a U.S. EP-3 spy plane with a perhaps overzealous Chinese fighter aircraft. Those in Washington who had been undismayed by the idea of a confrontation with Beijing on various matters of principle would probably now agree that, whatever those matters of principle are and were, that would not have been the ideal moment, or indeed pretext, at which to put them to a trial of strength. And the bad moment passed, without the United States having to humiliate itself by making too many apologies. One might wish for the return of the time when our world was so easily managed.

But here is exactly what Powell’s critics maintain: He does not sufficiently understand that the world has since become more dangerous and less "manageable," and he is too willing to bargain with, and perhaps even to apologize to, those who do not wish the United States well. He may indeed favor the venerable traditions of negotiation and multilateralism. Yet what reward has this touching faith brought him? The chief evidence against him would be his attempt to prolong the political life of Yasser Arafat, his reluctance to believe that Hussein was incorrigible short of war, his belief in the good faith of the Saudis, and his willingness, right up until September of 2004, to extend deadlines in Sudan. (Some on the Virginia side of the Potomac have duly noted that he had no difficulty recognizing a deadly enemy, and leaking accordingly, when that enemy was in the Department of Defense.)

There would be no need to mention the "Quartet" — the all-inclusive Powellite force that comprises (or comprised; it’s hard to say) the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia — if its utter failure had only involved that cemetery of diplomacy, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More important to us is the question, does the dogma of multilateralism outweigh all experience? Recent history suggests an answer. The Europeans failed their very first post-Cold War test, in directly neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, and had to implore American help. The Gulf Arabs, and their partial allies in Egypt and Syria, could not have recovered statehood for Kuwait on their own, and had to beseech the help of the United States, which — on that basis — was able to recruit an overpowering majority in the United Nations. Colin Powell as national security advisor and Colin Powell as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff sternly opposed both rescue operations until the balance in Washington shifted decisively against him. On the issue of the former Yugoslavia, he had a celebrated confrontation with then U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright, who accused him of being unwilling to employ military superiority in any circumstances.

We have a fairly accurate picture of what this secretary thought, and did, after Sept. 11, 2001. No serious person needs even to read between the lines of Woodward’s two volumes, Bush At War, succeeded by the much superior Plan of Attack. To the annoyance of many within the administration, especially concerning the first book, Powell was to all intents and purposes being quoted firsthand.

But he was also being cited, in his own name and in real time, and in his own capacity, in public. It’s true that directly after September 11, he expressed skepticism about Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’s plan for "ending states who sponsor terrorism," and a more general skepticism about regime change, a skepticism quite consistent with his entire political past. But he also made the most cogent presentation of any cabinet member, right in front of the U.N. General Assembly and the entire world, making the case that time had run out for Saddam Hussein.

Here, then, might be the nub. Powell, and his most loyal subordinate Richard Armitage, assured us in minute detail that the secretary was not content to spout any form of words handed to him. He is known to have spent many painful hours winnowing and refining that presentation. George Tenet, then the director of U.S. central intelligence, sat conspicuously behind him as if in confirmation that the two U.S. government agencies most doubtful about regime change were, at any rate, of one mind about the regime in question. Yet, several months later, while being interviewed by NBC journalist Tim Russert, the secretary appeared to suggest that he had been led astray by opportunistic intelligence provided through the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmad Chalabi: a man who was a bête noire at State and CIA for many years. One need only imagine what Dean Rusk or Adlai Stevenson might have done, had they learned too late that someone had faked or "improved" the U-2 photography over Cuba that they waved in the face of the world and shook in the face of the Soviet delegation. Resignation would have been the least of it. And somebody would have been fired (which, strangely enough in this case, nobody has).

During this same period, the Department of State had every opportunity to prove the relative superiority of diplomacy and alliance building over "saber rattling," or whatever we agree to call it. European and other capitals could have been subject to a vast American effort of persuasion, and free media across the world could have been offered some "public diplomacy," too. Powell inaugurated his tenure at Foggy Bottom with a speech to the staff in which he had said that he would be a friend of the diplomatic corps. He even got the president to come to the department and speak encouraging words. Yet can anyone cite any effort, by any accredited American representative overseas, to make the administration’s case? And can anyone recall, without acute embarrassment, the expensive and useless tactics of soft-core public relations and pseudo-MTV with which former Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Margaret Tutwiler and others briefly attempted to boost America’s "image"? So dire was this defeat, in fact, that the lack of enthusiasm or allies was used as evidence in itself that the policy must somehow be wrong.

The official historian of the State Department has calculated that Powell will have traveled less than any secretary in more than three decades. His three immediate predecessors voyaged abroad an average of 45 percent more than him. "Shuttle diplomacy" may well have been overpromoted by Henry Kissinger, but a politique de presence has an importance of its own, and Powell should not forget that it was very largely his own personality — large, affable, calm, and, yes, originally Caribbean — that landed him the post to begin with. I myself doubt that a diplomatic "offensive" by Powell would have melted the heart of the Elysee, but he incurs criticism not for failing, but for not trying. And then he incurs further criticism for indicating dissent from a major policy, partly on the grounds that it did not command enough sympathy overseas.

So why didn’t Powell resign? The kindest explanation would seem to be that it didn’t cross his mind. He assumed himself unsackable, almost certainly correctly. And he could therefore continue to have things both ways, conducting his own private diplomacy through Woodward if things didn’t suit him. This experience was not exactly a first: As chairman of the joint chiefs, he had expressed himself freely on matters more properly decided by civilian authority, such as the future of Bosnia or the role of homosexuals in the military. Indeed, it’s thinkable that he exerted more influence on policy when he was not secretary.

To inquire about his stand on the principle of resignation is a bit like asking whether he’d ever have deigned to run for president. Here again, he felt entitled to be flirtatious and noncommittal, keeping the voters (or rather the book buyers) guessing until he’d finished his tour with the 1995 memoir, My American Journey. It was in those pages, incidentally, that he disclosed what has since become evident: "Having seen much of the world and having lived on planes for years, I am no longer much interested in travel."

It’s not only the frequency, or lack of it, in Powell’s trips. It’s also the duration. By July of this year, he had spent less than 24 hours in Sudan. He may possibly have been right that the Sudanese authorities needed to be engaged rather than isolated, condemned, and subjected to hostile pressure, in respect to their conduct in Darfur and elsewhere. (He had better have been right: Even as Powell cautioned against military intervention, Slobodan Milosevic employed similar breathing spaces to carry out ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.) But how much seriousness does this level of "engagement" show?

There is, one cannot help feeling, something in Colin Powell that likes to give away the store. While bidding, not too hard, for the Chilean vote at the United Nations, he stated during a televised town hall interview that the United States had nothing to be proud of in the 1973 overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende. When the terrible revelations from the Abu Ghraib prison were published, Powell, in the course of one interview, at first denied that he had ever seen anything like it in Vietnam, and then proceeded to evoke the memory of My Lai. This writer had better come clean and agree that it was high time to make an official statement about Chile, and indeed about My Lai. But perhaps not when vote-hunting in the Chilean case.

A more solemn and considered remark at an earlier or later date might have been more dignified. And perhaps not to pile on the agony as secretary of state in the Abu Ghraib case, where there had been neither a massacre nor a proven high-level cover-up. (And perhaps especially not if, as a young officer in Vietnam — as Powell was — one had been all too willing to dismiss early reports of atrocities.)

Colin Powell reportedly became incensed on Jan. 20, 2003, when, after many exhausting negotiations at the United Nations, he discovered from Dominique de Villepin, then the French minister of foreign affairs, that Paris thought that "nothing! nothing!" justified the armed enforcement of Resolution 1441 compelling Iraq to yield to U.N. inspections. This, Powell felt, was something that he might well have been told before he wasted his time. But it is also something that he could have known before he wasted that time (and, dare one hint) the time of others, too. In a much underreported speech to France’s assembled ambassadors on Aug. 26, 2004, the new French Minister of Foreign Affairs Michel Barnier said that it was France that has become isolated, even "arrogant," and that it could not flourish without allies. He was noted for not even mentioning the United States in his cautious remarks.

Thus, one might mark the end of the Powell tenure by noting that there is always room for quiet diplomacy, but by adding that "quiet diplomacy" may not necessarily involve deniable smirks and disclaimers concerning a central policy; that such smirks and disclaimers are especially unpersuasive when the policy is in trouble; that to tell the hometown paper that your rivals and critics are Communists and Nazis isn’t all that "diplomatic" in any case, and that faintness and ambiguity are not the same as patience, discretion, and reticence.

Christopher Hitchens is contributing editor at Vanity Fair and author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007).

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