Is Powell Really Bush's Odd Man Out?

Writer Robert Woodward is hardly the first to claim that Secretary of State Colin Powell is little more than a foreign policy bit player in the Bush administration. In a cover story the day before the September 11 terror attacks, Time magazine dubbed Powell the odd man out in the Bush circle. Since then Powell has been regularly skewered in the media as "invisible," fringe, "impotent," and "ignored" by Bush. The conventional thinking is that Bush keeps him around because he's a sop to diversity, gives his administration foreign policy luster and credibility, and as the consummate team player was the political favorite of presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton.

Powell certainly has been loyal to a fault to the presidents he has served. So loyal that he's taken much heat for allegedly downplaying the My Lai massacre, deflecting Congressional attention from the Iran-Contra scandal, cheerleading the legally dubious Panama invasion, opposing aid to the Kurds battling against Saddam Hussein and, of late, diffusing international anger over Iraqi prisoner abuses.

Though there are bits of truth in these knocks on Powell, they miss a point about his importance to Bush, and the complex competing interests that help shape American foreign policy apart from Bush's, or any president's, ideology, and world-view. Congress, especially the Senate and House Foreign Relations Committee, the various government bureaucracies, the CIA, the Defense Department, the IMF, key non-governmental organizations, the major oil, auto, aerospace, and corporations, and banks, have some say in foreign policy matters.

Powell supposedly was frozen out of the Bush trust because of his dust up with Iraq war hawks Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Iraq and the terrorism war are the issues that dominate national and international public policy debate, but they aren't the only big-ticket issues that Powell has had to deal with.

Powell has gotten grudging credit for his diplomatic adeptness in helping head off war between Pakistan and India, his performance at the Johannesburg global warming conference that turned an expected international humiliation into a coup for the U.S, and for defusing the flap with the Chinese in April 2001 when an American surveillance plane was brought down by the Chinese.

If Powell were the big policy loser with Bush, he would not have attained the lofty respect and admiration of European, Asian and African diplomats. He would not be constantly in demand to attend the top international summits, confabs and symposiums on development issues. The fact that he was jeered at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa in 2002 tells us much about his importance and his cliffhanger spot in the Bush administration. The protestors blamed Bush, not Powell, for stonewalling greater development and environmental help to poor nations. The diplomats instantly scrambled to defend him.

Powell has also been willing to buck Bush and urge a formal nuclear treaty ban, massive economic development and HIV/AIDS prevention aid to Africa and for jumpstarting talks with North Korea over its nuclear weapons arsenal.

Another important gauge of the effectiveness of a secretary of state is how well he or she can sell an administration's policy not to America's international friends, but to its foes. Iraq is a perfect example of that. If Powell hadn't argued and held out for a bi-partisan, global engagement approach to diplomacy and intervention in Iraq, the bombs and missiles may well have flown in Iraq with or without U.N. blessing months earlier than they did.

During that time, Powell got a reluctant U.N. Security Council to unanimously pass Resolution 1441 which demanded an immediate, fully verified end to Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction programs. Even the Syrians endorsed the resolution. Though Powell in an candid moment earlier this year said he may have got it wrong about Iraq's phantom WMDs (he later back-peddled from his epiphany), he still got the UN to go along with Bush's ill-reputed weapons claim. This was a tribute to the high regard in which many nations hold Powell. But more importantly, it bought valuable time for Bush to prep international and domestic public opinion on the need for war.

Even if, as Woodward asserted, Powell had little to do with Bush and Cheney's final decision to make war, though Rice and Powell dispute that, the decision was not his but the president's to make. It then became Powell's job as secretary of state not to publicly challenge that decision but to put the Bush administration's best spin on it.

Chronic Powell watchers lay bets that he will be out after this term. But they've laid the same bet throughout Bush's term, and he's still there. That's because he's a valued asset that Bush needs. When Powell leaves it will be because he wants too, not because Bush told him too. That's hardly an odd man out.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.

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