Powell gets out of purgatory

Rice’s positive traits and close relationship with Bush allow for guarded optimism.

Colin Powell’s term as secretary of state included a wealth of ironies. He was a battle-tested solider who advocated restraint to hawkish colleagues with no combat experience. He served in the administration that ignored the very policies, the Powell Doctrine, that facilitated his political stature. Powell is a great man who chose to be a “good soldier” above all else.

Unfortunately, a good soldier – one who supports his commander at all times – does not make a good leader or a good secretary of state in an administration that loathes using diplomacy to resolve conflict. To be sure, Powell had his successes. He forced the United States to pay better attention to problems in Africa. He facilitated discussions between India and Pakistan that kept the situation from exploding.

But his cabinet service will be marred by his support of the war in Iraq. Powell issued a scathing indictment of Saddam Hussein’s regime at the United Nations, convincing many doubters at home and abroad the war was proper. He claimed to offer “not assertions,” but “facts and conclusions,” yet his evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction proved erroneous. In making the invasion of Iraq all but inevitable, he effectively killed his own doctrine, as the resulting operation fulfilled none of the Powell Doctrine’s elements – wage war with overwhelming force only after securing political support for achievable goals.

Powell likely thought he could succeed inside the administration, despite differences with it. This failed to take into account how much his world view differs from his colleagues’ and the president’s, as well as how little that boss listens to what he doesn’t want to hear. Powell deserves credit for trying, though.

His presumptive replacement, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, seems less likely to even try. Further, as the top diplomat, she has a disturbing affinity for military force. Finally, she has shown little ability to manage a large bureaucracy.

Still, she has positive personal traits that allow for guarded optimism. She is intelligent, driven and charismatic. She will have also more of President George W. Bush’s ear than Powell did. She’ll need all of these assets to fare better than Powell in the inevitable conflicts with the Pentagon and others.

If she can, and if she sets her substantial energies to shoring up U.S. foreign relations – ostensibly the first order of business at the State Department – much is possible.