He was very cautious, and didn't go as far as some Republicans have on certain issues. He went out of his way to allay some fears of Democrats, emphasizing, for example, that human rights will remain an important focus of U.S. foreign policy and that China does not threaten us at the present time.
He also gave a long and fairly cogent analysis of the problems arising in a new world connected by the Internet and facing mounting danger from damage to the environment and plagues such as HIV. He was refreshingly up-to-date on those issues, in light of the fact that some people had questioned whether he'd be up to speed on the changes in the international situation since he left government eight years ago.
What about National Missile Defense, which may be shaping up to be the key foreign policy fight of the new administration in light of strong opposition from Russia, China and European NATO allies?
He didn't yield much on the question of missile defense. He said the U.S. was going to study it, but would not say, as some Democrats had hoped, that the program should be delayed if Washington got an ironclad agreement from North Korea to stop exporting missiles. He said the U.S. would proceed with building a national missile defense, but that it would proceed prudently. He conceded that this could stir up unwelcome reactions from both enemies and friends. But he also said, "If it's the right thing to do, you do it anyway. Sometimes you have to go through these political barriers."
Right now the U.S. is pretty much alone in NATO on the missile defense question. Will European opposition be allowed to stop the program?
Remember that Powell was being interviewed for the job of top diplomat. He said we're not going to bulldoze ahead and we'll seek the maximum cooperation. He said the program hadn't been properly explained to the Europeans and that their concerns are not well-founded. He believed that by explaining it in the context of the overall U.S. security strategy, he could show the benefits. But he certainly did not rule out going it alone if need be. He's anticipating tough negotiations, which he fully expects to win. He clearly embraced the idea that missile defense is good for America, and plans to go forward with it while acknowledging the difficulties.
How about the Middle East. It was interesting to hear him carefully balance "unshakable support for the security of Israel" with "legitimate Palestinian aspirations" and "our friendships in the Arab world." Could the failure to conclude an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement bring shifts in policy?
Remember, as Dennis Ross has always said, we can't want peace more than the parties themselves do. Powell was certainly understandably cautious. He had nothing ill to say about Clinton's recent efforts. He did talk about reviving the Syrian track. But on the whole he recognized the sensitivity of the situation with negotiations ongoing. So his remarks were widely prudent.
What about on Iraq, where Saddam's continued survival in power has got to be a difficult issue for this particular administration?
One of his most interesting comments was his caution about arming the Iraqi opposition. After all, committee chairman Senator Jesse Helms and other Republicans have been strongly critical about the Clinton administration's failure to implement the Iraq Liberation Act. But in some of his most outspoken comments, Powell left the senators with no illusions about the difficulty of getting a bunch of disorganized, self-interested rebel groups to mount an effective military challenge to Saddam. Powell had experience of the Nicraguan Contras, of course, and he differed strongly with Dick Cheney on that question during the 1980s, when Cheney was one of the most outspoken Contra supporters on Capitol Hill. Powell, for his part, concluded that they weren't worth spending a lot of political capital on.
Some of Powell's own shifts were interesting, too. During his testimony, he embraced the general idea of continuing to isolate Cuba in order to force out Castro, but at the end of his book he had concluded that it was time to end the Cold War isolation of Cuba and North Korea. Also, he came out against the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which he'd previously supported. But on the whole, it was a virtuoso performance.