The legacy of a failed American salesman

By Max Boot

Financial Times

Published: November 18 2004

There is general agreement in political circles that Colin Powell is a great American but a poor secretary of state. The reasons for this judgment differ by political persuasion. The right is miffed because he was not supportive enough of the president's hawkish agenda. The left is upset because he did not do enough to oppose that programme. Neither view captures the whole truth.

Mr Powell obviously had reservations about some of the president's actions, notably the invasion of Iraq (he also opposed the 1991 war against Saddam Hussein) and he was not shy about leaking his discomfort to his favourite amanuensis, Bob Woodward. But, like a good (if slightly discontented) soldier, he took the view that once the commander-in-chief made a decision, his role was to carry it out. There is nothing wrong with this attitude, nor with Mr Powell's advocacy of views sharply different from those of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. A president benefits from a healthy internal debate - as long as it does not lead to policy paralysis, as has happened over Iran and North Korea. But that is not all Mr Powell's fault. Much of the blame lies at the elegantly-clad feet of Condoleezza Rice, his successor, whose job at the National Security Council was to arbitrate disputes between the State and Defence departments.

The real problem with Mr Powell's tenure is that he did not do a good job of selling the administration's policies, either because his heart was not in it or because he simply was not very good at it. Admittedly, Mr Powell had a few successes, most notably his mobilisation of a broad coalition after the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001. US forces would not have been able to topple the Taliban without gaining basing rights in neighbouring countries such as Uzbekistan and Pakistan. Mr Powell skilfully leant on local rulers to open the way for US troops and end aid to the Taliban.

Although it was not all his fault, Mr Powell had less success gathering a coalition to invade Iraq. He did a convincing job of presenting the administration's case at the United Nations in February 2003, although much of his evidence has since been discredited. But he could not win a UN resolution authorising military action, casting into doubt his strategy of relying so heavily on the UN in the first place. Even worse, Mr Powell failed to secure Turkey's support for the war, a failure for which we are still paying a heavy price. Critics derided him for not visiting Turkey as James Baker did before the first Gulf war. This was sadly typical of Mr Powell's tenure. He travelled less than any US secretary of state in 30 years. It was not entirely coincidental that America's image sank to new lows in the past few years.

Telephone calls and meetings with foreign ministers in New York and Washington are fine, but they are not enough to win the battle for hearts and minds. America needs a secretary of state who travels incessantly, to explain and defend US policies. In the age of satellite television, no nation can afford to have striped-pants diplomats whose activities are limited to cocktail parties. The model should be Oprah Winfrey, not Dean Acheson.

Unfortunately, public diplomacy has been neutered since the cold war. American libraries abroad have been closed and resources shifted from the US Information Agency, which was merged into the State Department in 1999 by the unholy alliance of Madeleine Albright and Jesse Helms. The problem has been compounded by the choice of ambassadors to high-profile postings, wealthy businessmen who are big campaign donors but usually lack either the skills or the inclination for the rough and tumble of public debate. The last US ambassador in London was more interested in talking about horse racing with the queen than talking about the Iraq war with the average bloke in the street.

As the major challenge for the next secretary of state will be to win over America's critics abroad, it would have made sense to appoint a seasoned politician with centrist credibility: someone like Sam Nunn, Jack Danforth or Joe Lieberman. Instead George W. Bush chose Ms Rice.

Much of the news coverage has focused on whether her appointment augurs a change in policy. The answer is almost certainly no, because the president makes the decisions, and always has. The real question is whether she can more effectively sell those policies abroad than Mr Powell did. It may turn out that she is better suited to running the State Department than the NSC. But in her new role, can she succeed where the more experienced Mr Powell faltered?

The writer, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes a regular column for the Los Angeles Times; he appears here by special arrangement with that paper