In Defense of Colin Powell

He wins friends and influences enemies.

Had you not been watching television on the morning of Sept. 11 but chose instead to walk into your local drugstore and purchase a news magazine, you might well have picked up the one with Colin Powell on the cover. That very week, Time magazine had chosen to make the secretary of state the central figure in a cover story titled “Odd Man Out.” Colin Powell is a “global eminence,” the lead-in read, “Yet on the Bush foreign policy team, his star somehow shines less brightly than expected.”

Had you read on, you would have absorbed, fairly quickly, the liberal conventional wisdom about Powell. “He’s been largely invisible” a Democratic senator was quoted as saying. He is “somewhat at odds with the rest of the team,” the Time journalist opined, comparing Powell the mulitlateralist to Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz the unilateralists, and somewhat snidely adding his own views: “If you wanted to put a label on Powell’s foreign outlook, you could call it ‘compassionate conservatism’; the others share the second notion but not the first.”

In response, Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, characterized this article rather succinctly: “a cover piece lamenting the fact that Secretary of State Colin Powell hadn’t yet sabotaged Bush foreign policy, a cause of great consternation among elite journalists.” Lowry then went on to lambaste Powell for his role in what was then the dispute of the day, the administration “split” between the Wolfowitz camp, which wanted a wider anti-terrorist war against Iraq as well as al-Qaida, and the Powell camp, which want to “settle” for an attempt at taking out Osama Bin Laden.

Rather surprisingly (given that a lot has happened since last September), general perceptions of Colin Powell haven’t changed much since then. Both the liberal and the conservative critics of the secretary of state continue to share the view that he’s not quite a fully paid-up member of the Bush administration. Depending upon your point of view, he’s either a sadly ignored “voice of moderation” or an infuriating “spokesman for inertia,” either the “only sane man in the administration” or a “representative of the institutional biases of the Foggy Bottom bureaucracy.”

It’s fair enough, but only up to a point. Colin Powell’s personal style differs from that of Donald Rumsfeld. His ideological origins differ from those of some of the rest of the Bush entourage, too. We didn’t know Powell was a Republican at all until quite late in his career, whereas we’ve known where Paul Wolfowitz’s political sympathies lay for a good while longer.

In fact, Powell differs from his colleagues in many ways—in the sorts of people he hires, in the way he manages them, in the way he uses the media—and so what? Foreign policy isn’t supposed to look like a made-for-TV political convention, at which lots of different people stand up and say the same thing over and over again. And even if it were supposed to be monolithic, it couldn’t be, because that isn’t how foreign policy works anymore, unless you live in North Korea. In the United States, foreign policy gets made at many levels, by many people: Congress, state legislatures, the various government bureaucracies—CIA, Defense, State—not to mention NGOs, large companies, and the media, who also shape the way that the United States is perceived abroad, even when they aren’t directly carrying out the president’s orders. Lately, I’ve noticed Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, being quoted at length in the European press. Until quite recently, his predecessor, Jesse Helms, appeared with equal frequency. The Helms and the Biden worldviews could not be more different, yet both, at different times, have been perceived to be speaking on behalf of the United States of America.

It is also true that within this cacophony, Colin Powell’s voice stands out. Unlike some other secretaries of state I can think of, he hasn’t gone out of the way to court the limelight—which means that when he does speak, people listen. More to the point, it also turns out that he has a special skill: He is extremely good at speaking to foreigners. In particular, he is extremely good at explaining the more unilateralist-sounding bits of Bush’s foreign policy to foreigners—those bits, in other words, that he is widely thought to oppose—in language they can understand.

I’ve seen him do this on television a couple of times in recent weeks, and to my knowledge, he’s also done it at least twice in the press. In two recent foreign interviews—one in the Financial Times last week and one in the Daily Telegraph last December—he completely disarmed two rather different sets of critics. The FT interview—headlined “Powell shrugs off European dismay over ‘axis of evil’ “—was a masterful display of how to deflect anger, belittle your enemies, and win friends and influence people at the same time. Yes, he said, Chris Patten, the European Union’s external affairs commissioner, “did manage to work himself up a bit last week and I shall have to have a word with him, as they say in Britain.” Of the French foreign minister, who had called Bush “simplistic,” Powell said he was “getting the vapours.” Flicking away the critics, he then lavishly praised the president. Bush, he said, “acts after considering all the alternatives. He acts after listening to all his advisers. He acts after consulting with friends and allies.” No wonder the FT decided to splash the interview across its front page.

To the Daily Telegraph, Powell also spoke warmly of allies—after Sept. 11, he said, his first act was to “work the phones” and start building a coalition—while at the same time sounding both firm and mysterious about U.S. intentions in Iraq. Asked what might happen to Saddam Hussein, he quoted Bush: “He’ll find out.” His interview not only earned an unusual gush from the Telegraph’s editor, Charles Moore (Powell “makes it all seem simple”), it also won the headline “We Americans know how to get a job done when we put our minds to it.”

I realize, of course, that being good at giving interviews to British newspapers isn’t a quality much admired in Washington, D.C. Still, Powell’s ability to bring foreigners around to the American point of view is something this administration, which is carrying out nothing short of a revolution in foreign policy, needs badly—so why should Powell be thought of as a loser or an outsider? White-House-watchers always insist on seeing policy-making as a zero-sum game: If Condi Rice is up then Powell must be down; if Rumsfeld is in then Powell must be out. They should try, instead, to look at foreign-policy-making like a game of golf, in which you use the right iron for the right hole. Send Wolfowitz to scare Saddam. Send Condi to speak Russian to the Russians. Send Powell to build coalitions and keep the allies on board—and stop calling Powell a “fading global eminence.”