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Powell, the good soldier

The recent stories about Colin Powell resigning as Secretary of State are like Mark Twain's comment on the "news" of his death – greatly exaggerated.

The speculation persists, and is periodically recycled, because of an erroneous assumption that when Mr. Powell quits it will be for policy reasons. It won't. When his tenure ends at Foggy Bottom, personal calculations will drive it rather than policy considerations.

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The stories contend that Powell is unhappy about his inability to have more influence on the Bush administration's foreign-policy decisions. Cutting off US funding for the United Nations Population Fund, after Powell praised it only last year, is cited as one example. Rejecting every international treaty designed to deal with a global problem because it might somehow impinge on US national sovereignty is another.

Thus, speculators conclude, such frustrations should be enough to drive any internationalist to throw in the towel – especially a statesman with the stature of a rock star.

Powell wore a military uniform much longer than he has worn pinstripes, however, and he earned most of his four stars on the bureaucratic battlefields of Washington. He therefore combines the obedience and discipline of a soldier with the loyalty and discretion of the consummate staff aide.

At the White House in earlier administrations, he excelled more at process than policy formulation. His publications to date consist mainly of an autobiography penned by a ghostwriter – not intellectual musings about theories of international relations.

As neither an ideologue nor a theorist, he lacks a foreign policy of his own or a clear vision of the direction one should take. He is, instead, comfortable with reflecting the State Department's views. One newspaper article described Powell as pragmatic and nonideological as well as multilateralist and moderate. The same terms would describe State's advice on nearly every issue.

Those views don't carry the weight the foreign policy specialists think they should, because arrayed against them are the political operatives of the White House and the unilateralists of the Defense Department. The White House cares about nothing more than reelection in 2004 and is going to ensure that policy is designed to serve that end.

The wants of the administration's core constituencies therefore rule. Family-planning aid to the world's poor is cut off if doing so pleases the anti-abortion crowd, and policy toward Israel is tailored to the biblical visions of the religious right.

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The hard-liners at the Pentagon don't see how any multilateral entanglement can possibly serve US national interest. For them, American leadership is telling the rest of the world how it can support US goals and spending ever greater amounts on defense so America can impose its view when others don't.

In such an environment, Powell tries to be the voice of reason, accommodation, and moderation. No wonder he appears to come up on the short end of the decision so often. But given his background and temperament, Powell probably minds less than one might suppose. Once the decision is made, he follows orders.

What does seem to matter is his image, his future earning power, and his place in history. He has declined to run for office, despite encouragement from all quarters. This is often taken as a sign of his character – although having more integrity than the average politician is faint praise. It could also stem from not wanting to subject himself to the scrutiny and criticism of a campaign, as well as a lack of interest in the mechanics of making domestic policy.

Since policy takes a back seat to appearances, Powell will continue to soldier on, rather than trade his position for a few brief headlines. Being the first to depart the Bush Cabinet and leaving the impression he had a prominent role only in photo ops will not ensure his place in history. If he stays and is able to create a record of modest accomplishment, the headlines and historians will treat him more kindly. Staying around will serve that interest, not to mention contributing to the size of his next book deal.

• Ambassador Dennis Jett is dean of the International Center at the University of Florida.


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