Will America Still Love Colin Powell?

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There's a temptation, in a nation that builds its icons on templates forged in Hollywood, to imagine Colin Powell as some kind of movie hero. Just like those we love best on the big screen, he's handsome, commanding, possessed of a sonorous voice and a compelling story — all of which combine to stir feelings of admiration, comfort and well-being. His triumphs satisfy some of our unspoken emotional desires.

Of course, there's something delusional in such musings, particularly when they go in the opposite direction. President Carter, for example, awarded John Wayne the Medal of Freedom as "an example of true American grit and determination," when of course Wayne had simply grown wealthy portraying such Americans onscreen.

Colin Powell, of course, is much more than a mere John Wayne. But President-elect Bush was fully aware of Powell's "American hero" status and knew he'd hit a home run when he tapped Powell for secretary of state. Powell, after all, brings to the table a true-blue Horatio Alger story — black kid from the Bronx made good with no special favors — as well as a remarkable track record in the military, an almost unprecedented wealth of goodwill from across the political spectrum and a commanding moral authority. It's that special sort of Cinderella moral authority reserved for those who have risen by fairly and squarely beating the odds stacked against "outsiders." Qualities, indeed, that more than compensate for the stature gap of a President-elect who can't truly hide the fact that he's the consummate insider.

Colin Powell's persona invites instinctive trust. We feel safe in his hands as we watch him on TV, and find ourselves subliminally imagining James Earl Jones — not the Darth Vader version, but rather the stern but loving father figure of "Field of Dreams" or "The Lion King." That quality which once made Powell so attractive as a possible presidential candidate will probably also make his confirmation hearing one of those festivals of bipartisan deference usually reserved only for Alan Greenspan.

Call me Tonto

But where does the fantasy we project on Colin Powell end and the real Colin Powell begin?

After all, Powell is not averse to pressing the emotional buttons that attach to his "noble outsider" appeal, moves that reveal important clues as to how he made his way in the corridors of power. Questioned about his role as a top aide to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger during the Iran-Contra scandal — in which capacity he'd helped facilitate the CIA's acquisition of a shipment of missiles to be sent to Iran to help secure the release of American hostages in Lebanon — Powell replied, "I was his faithful Indian companion." What's most notable here is less his (legitimate) minimizing of his role in the scandal than his choice of the Tonto characterization. But Powell wasn't bolting from the side of his former boss. Far from it. So deep was his loyalty that Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh opined in his report that Powell had been less than forthcoming with the investigation. Powell, of course, was furious, and publicly challenged the assertion — certainly nobody believes he had a leading role in that scandal, and it's unlikely to impede his passage to Foggy Bottom.

But the way he defines his role in that episode reveals some things about his rise through the ranks. He may be championed these days as a "Gulf War hero," but Colin Powell is no "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf. His military career was that of a manager and organizer rather than a strategic visionary. For a man who rose so fast, Powell has remarkably few enemies — but his renown was earned as that of a no-nonsense facilitator who could make the trains run on time, rather than as a thinker or innovator. When the time came for war, he organized the winning team on Operation Desert Storm. But he hadn't exactly been gung ho about the need to fight in the first place. Powell had, in fact, expressed deep reservations about responding with military force to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. That, perhaps, was his job — after all, he was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the commanders had presented him with U.S. casualty estimates that numbered around 40,000.

Ask questions first, shoot later

Still, once the decision was taken, Powell ensured that it was properly implemented, deploying a ground invasion force that overwhelmed Iraqi defenses. He then played an important role in helping to persuade President Bush to call it off after four days, once Iraqi forces were in retreat from Kuwait. Thus what has come to be known as the "Powell Doctrine" — prudent use of military force, but deployed in dimensions so overwhelming as to make victory a certainty, and always with a clear exit strategy. Fashioned in response to Vietnam, the formative experience of Powell's generation of commanders, the doctrine stands in marked contrast to the ways in which U.S. military force was used during the Clinton years.

Indeed, Powell vigorously opposed U.S. intervention in the Balkans on the grounds that there were no vital U.S. interests at stake, and his military doctrine would preclude the sort of limited air wars ordered up by Clinton against Iraq and Yugoslavia. Powell believes the Clinton administration's approach of limited use of force for limited objectives is the military equivalent of a Hail Mary pass — the outcome is far from certain, and if limited force fails it then becomes necessary for the U.S. to expand its commitment in what potentially can become a quagmire.

Men on a white horses

There's little doubt Powell will counsel a more prudent projection of force than was the case during the Clinton administration, and many foreign policy experts and military men may see that as a healthy change. Nonetheless, the inherent caution of the "Powell Doctrine" may on occasion prove somewhat self-limiting in a fast-changing world.

Some commentators may question whether putting the State Department in the hands of a soldier creates an imbalance toward a military perspective in the new administration's national security team. After all, the views of the Pentagon typically find their way to the Oval Office via the defense secretary and Joint Chiefs chairman, where they sometimes collide with the diplomatic concerns that are the province of the secretary of state.

But two four-star generals have preceded Powell as secretary of state in the past half century, and while Alexander Haig's tenure at Foggy Bottom may not be remembered as the high point of his career, General George Marshall is regarded as one of the best secretaries of state of the postwar years. So a military background by no means dictates how Powell will perform.

Foreign policy turnaround guy?

Powell's military background certainly includes not only extensive experience promoting U.S. interests in such international contexts as NATO and the Gulf War alliance, but also a term as deputy national security adviser that put him at the fulcrum on U.S. diplomatic, military and economic concerns on the world stage.

So there are plenty of reasons to give the incoming secretary of state the benefit of any doubt. But the job will certainly be a lot more challenging than anything Powell has done until now. The Clinton administration has left U.S. foreign policy in a state of considerable disarray, which the Bush campaign vowed to rectify by developing the overarching strategic vision that was absent in the often-haphazard foreign policy of the past eight years. So there's no danger of Powell dropping the ball; the question is whether can he pick it up, reorganize the team and rewrite the playbook.

Colin Powell has certainly proved himself a national security administrator whose track record inspires immense confidence, and he goes into the job bearing a lot more experience and gravitas than his predecessor did (after all, the man has given his name to a foreign policy doctrine even before taking office). But U.S. foreign policy right now cries out for visionary strategic leadership, and that's an entirely new challenge, which may test qualities the American hero has yet to reveal.