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Mr. Powell’s Foreign Friends

Will U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s foreign contacts ensure his political comback?

May 7, 2002

Will U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's foreign contacts ensure his political comback?

It is said that power in Washington depends on which meetings you get to sit in on — and how well you can build coalitions with your counterparts in other departments.

By that measuring rod, Colin Powell appears to be a near-complete failure as Secretary of State. Even though he has re-energized the State Department and has a natural air of authority, everybody else in the Bush Administration has been out to undercut him for well over a year now.

This was especially clear in terms of his direct influence on President Bush. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice — as well as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz — pretty much had the relationship with the President locked up.

Poor Colin Powell (the only genuine military man among the Bush Administration’s key players) was pretty much outed as a peacenik — whether the issue was the campaign in Afghanistan or Israel’s machinations in the Palestinian territories. “Let’s just agree not to deal with the internationalist-pacifist wimp,” the consensus of Mr. Bush’s inner core team seemed to say.

As a consequence, Mr. Powell was reduced to such impressive matters as talking about the global dimension of birth control on MTV in order to garner any headlines in the U.S. press. It seemed almost inevitable that Mr. Powell’s self-respect would demand that he bow out — both in style and in time. Clearly, he would not tolerate being reduced to a bit player status in powerful circles.

That cruel game plan — executed by Mr. Powell’s colleagues — almost succeeded had it not been for the fact that the world is such a messy place.

However, September 11 changed almost everything about U.S. foreign policy. The ensuing months have also modulated events quite a bit.

Amidst this situation, the leadership of the U.S. Defense Department is increasingly finding its options and sweeping views muddled — and confused — by a pesky reality.

Yes, the Pentagon now has good allies in places as far away as Uzbekistan and Georgia. And it is earning terrific but hard-fought battlefield experience in the Afghan-Pakistani border region. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s part of Israel definitely loves Mr. Bush’s Pentagon.

But what about the rest of the world? That is precisely where Colin Powell reenters the equation. After all, the rest of the world is the place that Mr. Powell’s supporters call “home.” And it is these very troops that will help him engineer his strong comeback in the Washington policy and power game. Just consider the Middle East as a hot-button issue.

After disengagement and tough talk failed, President Bush has only one card to play — his newly developed personal relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. But when it comes to the other major nations, key players in the Bush Administration (other than Mr. Powell) cannot claim particularly close relations to them — or even a true understanding of their positions.

But if there is one thing to be learned from the events in the Middle East this year, then — as Germany’s Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told The Globalist — it is that “nothing in the Middle East works without the United States, but the U.S. alone is not enough for a solution either anymore, as we all learned from the failed Camp David conference.”

If you agree that this is true — and we do — then the dilemma for the Bush-Rice-Rumsfeld trio quickly becomes self-evident. In order to resolve the Middle East issue, the Bush Administration will need to work with the Europeans, the Russians and the United Nations.

Alone, the United States won’t be able to solve the problem. And left alone to their present devices and strategies, the United States and Israel will isolate themselves ever more steadily from the rest of the world.

In due course, the Bush-Rice-Rumsfeld trio will also undermine the prospects for the resilience of U.S. bilateral relationships. Any number of U.S. Congressional declarations of unconditional support for Israel will not stop the unavoidable mission creep that stems from a much too exclusive — and much too close — U.S.-Israeli relationship. If anything, such declarations are an increasing sign of despair — and not determination.

Already, there is growing nervousness over too much optimism and a gung-ho spirit — both in the United States and Israel — based on operations in Afghanistan and the West Bank. After that initial high of operational successes, players like Messrs. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz must now feel as if they are suffering from a bad hangover.

What is even worse for them, however, is that George W. Bush is not known to be a man who likes to be dragged into a foreign policy quagmire. He likes his world pretty orderly.

But since the world really is not that way, it is part of Mr. Bush’s own personal education as Chief Executive to understand that he cannot escape dealing with complexity as President of the United States of America.

Initially, the Pentagon team offered a welcome solution to the younger — and still uninitiated — Mr. Bush. Call it the “bomb-and-shoot to clarity principle” of 2001.

But now that Mr. Bush is unwittingly turning into an elder statesman, he will inevitably remember those who warned him about the risks involved in such a strong-handed approach. And just as inevitably, Mr. Bush will look for a guide to get him out of the morass.

All of this is why we predict a revival of Mr. Powell’s fortunes. He is the man who has the relationships to the key people in Europe, Russia and elsewhere. To his credit, it is not just his foreign minister counterparts who are full of respect for the integrity and intelligence of the former general. Prime ministers and presidents respect him just as much. To them, he is the one ray of hope that shines brightly over the U.S. capital. Count on Mr. Bush soon to discover the charms and benefits of relying on a steward of Mr. Powell’s standing and tremendous abilities.