Eliot Cohen: Why Colin Powell Won't Go Down as a Great Secretary of State

Roundup: Historians' Take

Eliot Cohen, in the WSJ (Nov. 17, 2004):

[Mr. Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins, is the author of "Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime" (Anchor, 2003).]

To the role of secretary of state, Colin Powell brought enormous popularity in the U.S. and abroad, charisma and the instincts and habits of a skilled leader. He brought a fund of experience, including service as national security adviser, as well as the outlook of a prudent and moderate man. He had as his deputy a formidable friend and leader in his own right, Richard Armitage, to whom he could delegate with confidence, and on whose counsel he could rely. He won the allegiance of Foggy Bottom by doing what leaders do -- listening, making it easier for the operators to do their jobs, attending to the needs of those on the front lines.

And yet, he will not go down in history as a successful secretary of state. The two views of Mr. Powell that those about him have fostered -- loyal soldier of the administration and thwarted internal dissident -- do not quite mesh. He did not stop a war that he probably thought deeply unwise; he did not forestall a shredding of American reputation among allies and neutrals alike; he does not leave the U.S. more respected, and certainly leaves it less admired, than when he came to office.

"Not his fault," some might say, and "Who cares?" others might shrug. He was up against formidable opponents within, and intractable circumstances without, no doubt: But that is not quite enough of a response. In thinking about his tenure, and in contemplating her own path forward, the new secretary of state should think about how a superbly qualified man failed to achieve what was expected of him.

The Bush administration has two great strengths in its foreign policy: backbone, and clarity of vision. Those qualities, indispensable in time of war, have their accompanying weaknesses. Their resulting price has been sheer stubbornness, culpable tactlessness, and more dangerously, a lack of realism. Whether in dismissing the Kyoto treaty without suggesting some kind of alternative, or indeed treating seriously the problems it was meant to address; or in failing to acknowledge the errors and mistakes that have landed us in a full-blown guerrilla war in an Iraq that did not have the weapons a hapless secretary of state insisted to the world it did have, the administration has alienated more friends than it needed to, and made itself look arrogant to the point of blindness. The world gives us opponents enough: No need to cool our friends and heat our enemies by our own words and deeds.

Mr. Powell knew all that, but was not successful, in part because he did not make adequate use of the chief resource at his disposal. A secretary of state does not command a large budget or a vast work force. He or she cannot, as the secretary of defense can, send thousands of soldiers into battle, build roads, or catch terrorists. What the secretary has is, chiefly, the English language. Aside from an impassioned speech at the U.N. and a stirring evocation of the American record in Europe at Davos, Secretary Powell will leave behind no memorable words, no speeches that clarify the American position abroad, explain it at home, or guide those who must implement it.

The rhetorical function of leadership has succumbed to PowerPoint, e-mail, and telephone calls; indeed, the word "rhetoric" itself now has a pejorative connotation. But now more than ever we need rhetoric in its true sense, persuasive and illuminating speech about the troubles of our times.

As Mr. Powell's successor, Condoleezza Rice should begin by casting aside the ungainly acronym GWOT, and the more obscure term for which it stands: the Global War on Terror, a term that makes as much sense as if Americans had responded to Pearl Harbor by declaring a global war on dive bombers....

comments powered by Disqus