In the Washington stature game, few stand taller than Colin Powell. Washington respects power, and Powell has plenty of it. One reason is that his appeal is across party lines; as a black man in the party associated with the wealthy and powerful, Powell has few enemies on the left and even fewer on the right. Senator John McCain refers to Powell as "the most popular person in America."
Powell parlays his power strategically. He is not afraid to speak his mind. As a military man who spent much of his career either as a political aide or as the highest-ranking general, he knows the value of deference, i.e., when to speak and when not to.
As secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, Powell shoulders America's foreign policy in time of war. Early in Bush's tenure, it seemed as though Powell was being shoved aside in favor of old hands like Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and newcomer Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser. September 11 changed that power paradigm; suddenly Powell seemed to be in the right place at the right time for the right reasons. It fell to him to negotiate with President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan for the right to use Pakistani air space. Only a statesman of Powell's stature, it seemed, could negotiate with this one-time ally, who was threatened by India on his border and squeezed by Islamic fundamentalists in his own military, and whose government recognized the Taliban government as legitimate. Powell prevailed, no doubt demonstrating the virtues of having the United States as a friend rather than an opponent. According to Richard C. Holbrooke, a U.N. envoy during the Clinton administration, "Powell and Musharraf have developed a relationship soldier to soldier, statesman to statesman, which is really important and has paid off by bringing Pakistan into the alliance against terrorism and preventing conflict with India." Furthermore, Powell earned praise from President Bush: "He single-handedly got Musharraf on board. He was very good about that. He saw the notion of the need to put a coalition together."
As a soldier and a statesman, Powell strives to take the long view. He understands the ugliness of war, but at the same time he sees the need for taking a stand. Powell also looks at the post-September 11 world as a chance to redefine America's relationship with two former adversaries, arguing that terrorism was a common enemy. "Here was something that had nothing to do with any of the cold war models. . . . And it was something that everybody could join in against." Powell is equally articulate in putting America's post-terror attack role into historical perspective. "Our record and our history is not of going out and looking for conflict, it is not one of undertaking pre-emptive acts for the purpose of seizing … another people's territory, or to impose our will on someone else. Our history and our tradition is always one of defending our interests."
As a result, after much soul-searching, Powell supported the administration's argument on pre-emption in the Iraq war as a means of national self-defense. Powell showed his mettle in pressing America's case before the U.N. in early 2003. All of Powell's skills as a communicator, anchored in his experience as an officer and statesman, came to the fore. Armed with a presentation packed with visual support, Powell was like a prosecutor as he tore apart Iraq's claims that it did not harbor weapons of mass destruction, like a statesman as he rose above the fray to present the international case, and like a soldier as he stated that the United States was ready to fight. For a man once derided by hardliners as the "Administration's dove," it was a presentation that came down forcefully against an outlaw government and on the side of international security. A tough act, but vintage Powell.
Powell's strength radiates from within. He not only speaks in complete sentences but expresses well-founded and well-grounded thoughts. Unlike some speakers, his speaking ability does not come merely from the use of rhetoric or clever language; it comes from deep within him. It is almost as if his words come from his soul. And his articulateness enables him to project the inner strength that emanates from deeply held convictions and his bedrock faith in his own abilities.
The son of immigrants from Jamaica, Powell grew up in the Bronx, where he mixed freely with different races. He acknowledges in his autobiography that he was an indifferent student and that it was not until he joined the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) that he gained his focus—and his bearings. He became a commissioned officer in 1958 and served two tours in Vietnam, being wounded twice and earning a Bronze Star. He experienced racism firsthand while serving in posts in the South. "I've been thrown out of places because I was just black enough not to be served. . . . I consider myself an African-American and proud to stand on the shoulders of those who went before me."
Powell understands the symbolism of race in his role as secretary of state: "And it's always a source of inspiration and joy to see [foreign leaders] look at me and through me see my country, and see what promise my country offers to all people who come to these shores looking for a better life."
There is an efficiency to Powell's communications that stems from his military background. For example, he has a formula for making decisions; after gathering as much information as possible, much of it by making calls and asking questions himself, he assigns a numeric value to the intelligence he has gathered. Rarely do commanders have the luxury of 100 percent conviction; but when Powell gets to somewhere between P = 40 and P = 70, he applies his gut instinct.
He also has developed what he calls "Powell's Rules for Picking People." Among the characteristics he values are loyalty, integrity, passion, energy, and—perhaps most of all—"the drive to get things done." Those characteristics all apply to Powell himself, especially the ability to make things happen. And that is precisely what he brings to his position as secretary of state.
When President-elect Bush introduced Powell as his secretary of state, he made reference to another former Army man: "I would say of General Powell what Harry Truman said of General Marshall: ‘He is a tower of strength and common sense.'" Marshall was chief of staff of the army during the Second World War and later served as Truman's secretary of state, where he was the architect of the European Recovery Act (later called the Marshall Plan), which helped rebuild Europe's social and industrial infrastructure. And there is something of Marshall in Powell, apart from their military pedigree. Both generals made the transition to statecraft by understanding both the advantages of power and its limitations.
And it is with regard to its limitations that Powell is sometimes criticized. "Caution is not a vice. I think it's a virtue. I know when to act. And if caution is such a terrible vice, then I'm sure various people I have worked for over the years probably would not have hired me." One subject about which Powell is cautious is the use of troops. When he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he irked the Clinton administration with his sense of hesitancy about committing troops. That reluctance is born of his experience in Vietnam. Like many of his generation who served there, he knows war firsthand and he knows what happens when soldiers are thrown into battle without clearly defined goals.
As a lifelong army man, Powell knows from whence his soldiers come. He speaks of "Kmart parents"—those people of modest means who are the mothers and fathers of men and women in the armed forces. He insists that parents need to know why their sons and daughters are going to war, and that the reasons must be compelling. In contrast to the situation in Vietnam, the goals of Operation Desert Storm were well defined, and the military, led by
Powell and a very capable cadre of senior officers, excelled, expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait swiftly, efficiently, and with a minimum of casualties.
Powell found himself an outsider after President Bush called for a regime change in Iraq through military means because of the suspicion that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Powell found himself at odds with Vice President Cheney and to a very large degree with Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. Their differences arose from their approach toward Iraq; all parties agreed that Saddam was a tyrant who deserved to be deposed. Powell favored international action leading to his removal, a policy that involved allies as the Gulf War of 1990-1991 had. Cheney was a unilateralist, favoring the United States going it alone. Powell felt that an armed move would be preemptive and would risk disrupting America's fragile alliances in the Middle East, not to mention further upsetting the radical fundamentalist Muslims who dominated public opinion in the streets. As a result, Powell was the odd man out. Condoleezza Rice served as the liaison between him and the president. Nonetheless, Powell's decision to refrain from public comment on Iraq made his opposition to unilateral war obvious. To his credit, Powell worked behind the scenes to get President Bush to bring the Iraqi weapons issue to the United Nations. He was successful, and Bush eventually went to the U.N. and made a stirring address, one that by the way went through more than 20 drafts, the final ones bearing the ideas of Powell himself.
In addition to the disagreement over the Iraq question, Powell has had his share of run-ins with the Bush administration; his decisions have been questioned, and he is not a favorite of the Republican conservatives, a bedrock support group for President Bush. Powell is not bothered: "Fights come and fights go." And he is not above levity in such matters. In a lighthearted exchange with office secretaries over an empty jar of pretzels, Powell said, "Okay, that's enough. I've got to get back to work now—and by the way, I'm not resigning." His staff cracked up.
His son, Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, appreciates his father's even-handedness. "[W]hen there was contemplation he'd run for President, the biggest speculation was, As what? I mean, what greater accolade to a soldier than you don't even know his politics."
Powell acknowledged that his wife, Alma, was "unalterably opposed" to his running for the presidency, but he was comfortable with his own decision not to run. Richard Armitage, a political insider and Powell intimate, quotes him as saying, "‘On the mornings when I woke up and thought I'm going to run, I felt terrible, it was a terrible day. On mornings I got up and said, I'm not going to, I had a wonderful day.'" Powell, according to Armitage, believed that those who wanted him to run were looking for a "shortcut" to get "someone on a white horse." To his credit, Powell said, "That's not the way our system works."
At his press conference in November 1995 announcing that he would not be a candidate, Powell summed up his place in history as well as his strong sense of self; he included the remarks in the afterword to his autobiography, My American Journey.
Finally, let me say how honored I am that so many of you thought me worthy of your support. It says more about America than it says about me. In one generation, we have moved from denying a black man service at a lunch counter to elevating one to the highest military office in the nation and to being a serious contender for the presidency. This is a magnificent country, and I am proud to be one of its sons.
Bill Keller, "The World According to Powell," New York Times Magazine, Nov. 25, 2001.
Todd S. Purdum, "Embattled, Scrutinized, Powell Soldiers On," New York Times, July 25, 2002.
Bob Woodward, Bush at War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), p. 342. In this same interview, held in August 2002, President Bush gave a "tepid response" about Powell, calling him "a diplomat"—hardly the effusive praise he had given of him 2 years earlier.
James Dao, "Powell Defends a First Strike as Iraq Option," New York Times, Sept. 8, 2002.
Robin Wright, "The Presidential Transition File: For Nominee, Power Lies in Restraint," Los Angeles Times, Dec. 17, 2000.
Todd S. Purdum, "With Candor, Powell Charms Global MTV Audience," New York Times, Feb.15, 2002.
Purdum, "Embattled, Scrutinized."
Colin Powell with Joseph E. Persico, My American Journey (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995; afterword 1996), pp. 380-381.
Ibid., p. 343.
Wright, "The Presidential Transition File."
Keller, "The World According to Powell."
Woodward, Bush at War, pp. 321-352 (Powell's internationalism versus Cheney's unilateralism, p. 328). Also, comments made by author Bob Woodward in an interview with Gwen Ifill on NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Nov. 19, 2002.
Purdum, "Embattled, Scrutinized."
Keller, "The World According to Powell."
Powell with Persico, My American Journey, p. 600.
Keller, "The World According to Powell."
Powell with Persico, My American Journey, p. 602.