Powell's Aura: Charisma

Colin Powell, U.S. Secretary of State, 10-24-04 AP

CBS News Reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News, who now covers the State Department.


Colin Powell's four year term as the nation's chief diplomat will be defined by what happened after September 11, 2001, by his role in the war on terrorism and in the momentous decision to go to war in Iraq.

Powell's greatest strength was his personal popularity with almost every leader he met around the world. Yet for his great charisma, Powell, the only Secretary of State to hold an MBA degree, is a manager, not a visionary.

Powell's moderation and pragmatism ran head first into the more rigid and hawkish views of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. They pushed for tougher tactics and cared little about the diplomatic fallout. In the end, their view prevailed and Powell, ever the good soldier, made his case but then backed the President.

In the buildup to war, the Secretary of State's one major accomplishment was to persuade Mr. Bush to at least take his case for war before the United Nations. This turned out to be both a victory and a defeat for Powell.

The last major public presentation of Washington's case for war before the invasion, Powell's presentation to the Security Council on February 5, 2003, gave what he said was the best intelligence available that Saddam Hussein's regime had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and was an immediate threat to the region. Neither claim turned out to be right. Powell, his credibility in tatters, was left to explain the administration's actions to the rest of the world.

One argument Powell lost resulted in the decision to have Pentagon to run the show after the war was declared over, tossing aside State Department-prepared plans for the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq. His successor's greatest challenge will be to repair that.

Being Secretary of State is not a single issue job. There were other problems to manage, some Powell leaves better off than others.

Powell and the administration achieved what he called "very significant gains" in Afghanistan, where democratic elections were recently held, but solutions are still being sought for Iran and North Korea's expanding nuclear programs. Interestingly, Washington is now letting China take the lead on the North Korea issue while European diplomats are heading efforts to bring Iran into compliance on nuclear issues.

Powell presided over the restructuring of development funding and secured hundreds of millions to fight HIV/AIDS, especially in Africa and the Caribbean.

Critics will claim the Middle East peace process barely limped along under Powell's direction. While the administration says it tried with its "road map" plan, there were too many stumbling blocks to make real progress. Perhaps now, Mr. Bush says, with the death of Yasser Arafat and the installation of new Palestinian leadership, a way for progress can be found. But that is too late for Colin Powell.

Asked to name his most satisfying experience and his greatest regret as Secretary of State, Colin Powell declined to single out the high points or the low ones. In his answer, however, he did offer a glimpse into his approach to the position he is leaving and, perhaps, to the jobs he held before: National Security Advisor and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"In every one of these jobs there have been high points and low points, and what you have to learn to do in government, or in life, is to work through problems, seize the opportunities as they come along, and that's always the way I've tried to live my life in public service," said the nation's outgoing diplomat in chief.

Powell's resignation was done by the book. Conversations over the past year with his boss, President Bush, led to the judgment that now was the right time to make a change. Powell sent a letter last Friday to formalize the decision and informed his top advisors Monday at the daily 8:30 a.m. meeting of his senior staff.

Broadly speaking, the secretary of State wears two hats, as Powell often tells Congress or public audiences he speaks to. There is the task of chief foreign policy advisor to the President and there is CEO of a large bureaucracy. Most of his predecessors paid scant attention to the latter, focusing on the foreign policy aspects of the job. Powell was different and assessing his performance during the past four years depends on how you look at the tasks at hand.

As leader of foreign and civil service employees, Powell will be sorely missed. "He's the best regarded secretary for twenty to thirty years," said one official after the announcement. "His replacement will have a hard act to follow."

Powell viewed his diplomatic troops the way he did previous subordinates who wore military uniforms. He relied on the people in the field, his ambassadors and assistant secretaries and others with particular expertise. He had a few "special envoys" but for the most part if he wanted a briefing on a particular subject, he called the appropriate desk officer. Powell didn't always follow advice from underlings, but at least he sought it out.

When an American spy plane was forced down by Chinese military jet just weeks into the new administration, Powell let his ambassador in Beijing, Joseph Preuher, handle the daily negotiations. The crisis was resolved favorably: in a short period of time, through diplomacy.

Powell also went to bat for his department on Capitol Hill and got money to modernize the outdated machinery of diplomacy. Computers were finally put on every desktop and connected to far-flung posts. E-mail replaced the diplomatic cables of earlier generations. More young people, especially minorities, took the Foreign Service exam, ensuring fresh diplomatic talent in future years.

This hasn't been the norm in recent years. Powell's faith in the rank and file was repaid in devotion to the man. The people who work at the State Department and in embassies abroad love the man and they will miss him. "It's certainly a loss, anyway you look at it," said one mid-level official.

History, however, will not pay much attention to Powell the chief executive of the foreign policy bureaucracy.

Colin Powell's glittering reputation has been tarnished by his service as Secretary of State. At home and overseas, Powell's popularity may have endured but in the Bush administration, he was increasingly seen as a man with diminished clout where it counted: in the Oval office.


By Charles Wolfson
  • Joel Roberts

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