Odd Man Out Colin Powell is a global eminence. Yet on the Bush foreign policy team, his star somehow shines less brightly than expected. Why?

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Colin Powell has the gift of presence. When he walks into a room, people sit up, straighten their ties, hold their breath in anticipation. And he dazzles them with his effortless command. The moment he set foot in the State Department last January, he was met with rapturous applause. When he paid a call in Beijing three months after a U.S. spy plane was forced to land on Hainan island, he coaxed a joke out of somber President Jiang Zemin and left the leadership beaming that he "respected" China. They returned the compliment with a long-awaited $2 billion order for Boeing 737s. When Powell met George W. Bush in 1997 at a Texas charity fund raiser, the new Governor stepped forward and saluted: "General, Texas is reporting for duty." So it comes as one of the biggest surprises in the emerging Bush II era that Colin Powell, the man many thought would walk into the presidency himself a few years ago, is leaving such shallow footprints. By the cruel calculus of Washington, you are only as powerful as people think you are. Powell's megastar wattage looks curiously dimmed, as if someone has turned his light way down. People who like the Administration's foreign policy credit it to Bush, not Powell. People who don't, wonder where he is. Leaders abroad are not certain he is the definitive voice of America. A former Secretary of State says Powell seems absent from the big issues of the day. Another former top diplomat, when asked to provide an adjective for the phrase "Colin Powell is a 'blank' Secretary of State," says, "Yes, he is." A senior official in the Bush Administration who has worked with Powell for three Presidents in three agencies registers much the same reaction: "I've been struck by how not struck I am by him." A friendly foreign official notes, "It's not useful to sit as silent partner when you have his stature." What people noticed most at the U.N. Conference on Racism that opened last week in Durban, South Africa, was Powell's absence.On Capitol Hill, the impression of Powell's deflation has set tongues wagging. "He's been largely invisible," says a top Democratic Senate aide. At the White House, officials don't even pretend Powell is Bush's primary foreign policy person. "The President has a talented group of advisers," says a senior official, as if the general-hero brought no special luster. "Powell is one of them."Of course, in any bureaucracy--any democracy--there are competing ideas and different ways of doing things. That's healthy. It's not the end of the world if one of Washington's players is taken down a notch or two. But Powell and the office he holds are different. His stellar career, inspiring personal history and reputation for integrity have endowed him with a unique moral stature. Americans--and the rest of the world--want to see him use that to great ends. From the start, his presence at Bush's side conferred an extra legitimacy on an untried President, supplied experience to temper gut instinct. Powell's rich store of respect and goodwill lent confidence to allies overseas that the essentials of policy in the world's superpower would remain stable--or if they did change, that a reassuring interlocutor would be leading the process and explaining its wisdom.That is not what happened. In a particularly rough first 100 days, Powell went against Administration grain on Iraq and North Korea. He wanted American armed forces to continue Balkans peacekeeping; others thought it needlessly stretched the military too thin. Powell was blindsided when the Administration, without warning, disavowed the Kyoto protocol on global warming. Other officials stressed do-it-our-way; Powell sought cooperation.On a series of issues, the U.S. antagonized not just potential adversaries but also friends. Those friends saw the man they had assumed would be their partner appear marginalized. Even when they liked what Powell said, audiences at home and abroad have been regularly forced to ask what did Cheney say, what did Rumsfeld think, where did Rice stand. In an interdependent world, where the U.S. relies on others to shoulder peacekeeping burdens too risky for the American public to stomach, or to assist in the smooth workings of the global economy, this degree of confusion has made little sense. Perhaps above all, those who wanted Powell to lead American foreign policy have seen him somewhat at odds with the rest of the team on its very essence. The U.S. is at one of those fortunate--and rare--moments in history when it can shape the world. Like others on the Bush team, Powell is a natural conservative, with a keen sense of the need to protect American interests. But when he accepted his job, he focused not on the threats challenging the lone superpower but on the opportunities victory in the cold war offered. America could lead, he said, "not by using our strength and position of power to get back behind our walls but by being engaged in the world." Others in the Administration see the world through a different lens. For them, the overriding issue facing the U.S. is the search for a way to defend itself against those who might threaten its shores with an intercontinental ballistic missile. In a way not anticipated before the election, national missile defense lies at the heart of Bush's conception of the world and that of his many like-minded advisers. Missile defense may or may not be worth pursuing. Powell, initially halfhearted, now says he thinks it is. But it involves seismic change--ripping up the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, which has been the cornerstone of arms control for nearly 30 years. Such a plan antagonizes other nuclear powers, like Russia and China, and it raises concerns among European allies that the mighty U.S., so generous with its power since 1945, wants to look after its own interests and let the rest of the world go hang. Star Wars skeptics look to Powell to apply the brakes, to make the true believers see reason before they blithely abandon the treaty and disturb global nuclear stability. Or if missile defense is to go ahead, it needs someone to make its case with reason, firmness and tact, backed by unimpeachable authority--someone, in other words, like the Secretary of State his friends thought Powell would be. But so far, he seems to be going along for the ride.On the Bush team, Powell finds himself operating across a fault line. In shorthand, it is attitude. The differences within the team are not about goals so much as about the manner of accomplishing them. Powell is a multilateralist; other Bush advisers are unilateralists. He's internationalist; they're America first. 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. He is often seen as the Administration's force of moderation, charged with checking its more extreme enthusiasms. Even when winning, he seems to prevail against the tide. Though a star of global magnitude, he is the one doing the saluting.It has to be frustrating. Naturally his aides say, "Powell doesn't give a damn about that. He doesn't care if Powell gets his way. That is not what he is about." When TIME asked him point-blank last week, he gazed back and said, "I'm not frustrated. There are problems to be solved. And my job is to help the President find the right answer to the problems he faces. It's not for me to be frustrated; that's not an option."But friends say different. A Republican Senator who knows him well says flatly, "He's frustrated. I know he's not happy." A close associate at State says, "Sure, there's frustration--especially when you didn't have to do this and you're working your buns off at it." It has got bad enough for his intimate aides to wonder aloud whether Powell will serve out his full term. "You gotta wonder," says one, "whether you're still having fun or not."All this has left a vast audience of admirers at home and abroad wondering what all that Powell charisma and celebrity and promise are being used for. What has happened to make the Bush Administration's ace look like its odd man out? Is it Powell, or the circumstances he's in? Is it something in the Powell makeup, or some combination of rivalry and situation, that holds him back?It was probably impossible for Powell to live up to expectations. "He ascended to his position with almost a godlike reputation," says Senator Chuck Hagel, a senior Republican member of the Foreign Relations Committee. The hero of the Gulf War flirted with running for President in 1995, and both parties wanted him. When he agreed to grace Bush's Cabinet, it was widely assumed that he would run both foreign and defense policy. So far, Powell seems vicar of neither. That could change in time. You hear his friends say he is just sitting back while he marshals his forces for a takeover. In the Washington cosmos, the stars are always in motion--falling, rising, colliding--and it can take the political telescope eons to determine which.But nothing in Powell's situation makes it easy. He works for a man who doesn't tolerate being upstaged. The Administration Powell agreed to join has turned out to be full of rivals for predominance who are more hellbent on victory than he is. And the corridors of his own department, as much as the Pentagon and the White House, are salted with people who are not and never have been fans of his act. To understand the dynamics, it helps to back up a few paces. The last time Powell worked with a Bush, the foreign policy team was built on centrism. The President had long experience; his best friend, Jim Baker, was at State; his foreign policy mentor, Brent Scowcroft, was at the National Security Council. The tough guy at the Pentagon, Dick Cheney, was reined in by the consensus among the others. The team worked seamlessly, pretty much agreeing on things, sharing an outlook that was steady, center-right, practical. Powell loved it and felt an integral part of it. PAGE 1 | |