17 November 2004
The cheerleaders in Washington who claimed yesterday that the arrival of Condoleezza Rice at the US State Department would make no difference may be right in terms of US foreign policy. In terms of the impact of her appointment on Europe, their reassurance could not be more wrong.
For much of the past four years, we have had the luxury of being able to delude ourselves about George Bush and his intentions towards the world. We were able to do that largely because of the face of genial moderation presented by Colin Powell, the Secretary of State. Mr Powell spoke in language and concepts that were familiar. In manner, he was debonair, cosmopolitan, a man of the world. You could, as is said, take him anywhere.
Which is exactly what Mr Bush did. Whenever it was in his interests to project a kinder, gentler, more reasonable America, he produced Colin Powell. He used him during his first presidential campaign to exemplify his commitment to diversity, the meritocratic approach and "compassionate conservatism". Mr Powell's military credentials as a much-decorated soldier and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff during the 1991 Gulf War helped fill a glaring blank in Mr Bush's CV: his dubious military service.
At the State Department, Mr Powell's appointment was hugely popular. Upbeat, reliable and disciplined in the way of a retired military man, he initially brought a sense of optimism and stability to a ship that in Madeleine Albright's last months had started to leak and list. Abroad, there were sighs of relief. We persuaded ourselves that George Bush must have a softer, more sophisticated side to him if he had chosen Colin Powell to manage "abroad". Mr Powell may even have harboured such hopes himself.
This was wishful thinking. It is now hard to escape the conclusion that Mr Bush cynically exploited Mr Powell's good offices, while progressively side-lining him from the decisions that mattered - and that Mr Powell allowed himself to be manipulated. Whatever the moment at which their ways parted, however, the nadir for Mr Powell must surely be the day when he appeared at the United Nations as the front man for the Pentagon to present the administration's case for the Iraq war. His task was to demonstrate, using CIA satellite pictures and other intelligence data, that Iraq was in breach of the crucial Security Council resolution, 1441. He was chosen over the US ambassador to the UN and the Defence Secretary because he was trusted around the world.
When it transpired that Iraq had no banned weapons after all, Mr Powell admitted that the information he had presented had been erroneous; he had merely passed on what he had been told. Even more disappointing than this admission was his failure to draw the honourable conclusion and resign. In the US context, it was understandable: he chose not to precipitate a Cabinet crisis at a time of war when Mr Bush was campaigning for re-election. But it destroyed whatever shreds of credibility still remained to him abroad.
Many of the foreign tributes paid to Mr Powell when he announced his departure cited his understanding of other countries. His sympathy was not to be doubted. Where he signally failed, more and more egregiously, was in communicating his understanding back to the administration and making his voice heard.
This, at least, should not be a difficulty for his successor, assuming that her nomination is confirmed. Where Mr Bush's first-term administration owed much to appointments made by his father eight years before, especially in foreign policy and security, the new administration is shaping up as his own. Mr Bush also seems to have weaned himself off his management-school technique of encouraging open disagreement among powerful individuals before making his decision. His new Cabinet looks likely to be more cohesive than his first. Those who spoke yesterday of continuity rather than revolution or even evolution between Mr Bush's two terms may well be right.
From the European perspective, however, continuity is precisely what we are worried about: it means we will have to confront the reality of Mr Bush's policies and digest the implications. We will no longer be able to equivocate, citing what we have been told by that nice Mr Powell or presumed divisions within the administration. There will be no excuses.
Continuity does not necessarily mean that the next Bush administration will embark on more foreign military adventures in the name of freedom and democracy as defined by the US. It does mean, however, that a conservative ideology that is alien to many of us - and professed with missionary zeal - will feature prominently in US policy-making and that a no-holds-barred "war" on terrorism will still head US priorities.
With Condoleezza Rice's transfer to the State Department, continuity entails other possibilities as well. The announcement of her nomination was accompanied by remarkably uniform tributes to her quick, analytical and systematic mind. Her scholarly competence is not doubted. Nor is her loyalty to Mr Bush, whose view of the world she well knows and has helped to form. There are, however, real questions surrounding her administrative ability, her awareness of the sensibilities of others and her "feel" for the broader issues.
Her time as provost of Stanford University was not without controversy. As national security adviser, she appeared unable to prevail against the competing wills of the Defence Secretary, the chiefs of staff and Mr Powell. She was finally given charge of the whole Iraq portfolio to stop the quarrelling. Her months in charge have coincided with intensified military operations, confusion over the authority of the interim Iraqi leadership and the revelation of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. She has a reputation for being calm under pressure, but also for formulaic thinking, short on foresight and imagination.
In a lecture in London last year, she gave what is probably the most authoritative account of the thinking behind the Bush foreign policy that any member of his administration has given. Yet many aspects were disturbing, not least the highly dogmatic approach she took to contentious foreign policy issues, such as the pre-emptive use of force and the spread of democracy on the American model, and the sharpness with which she responded to even mildly dissenting views. If Ms Rice consents to debate, she expects only to win.
It is possible, of course, that as head of US diplomacy, Ms Rice will moderate the absolutist language in which she tends to express her views and turn out to be more of a pragmatist than an ideologue. She is not, and never has been, in the vanguard of neo-conservatives. Far more likely, though, is that the foreign policy strategist we glimpsed in London is the one we will get. If this shatters the illusion, so amiably fostered by Mr Powell, that the Bush view of the world is not so different from ours, perhaps that is for the best. Realism is the only basis on which broken diplomacy can start to mend.