Profile of Colin Powell: A man of charm
December 19, 2001
WASHINGTON – The operation bore Colin Powell’s unmistakable stamp: Think hard before you act, act decisively when you do and finish quickly.
It worked like a dream. Within an hour, a pesky tree blocking the view of Washington monuments from his home on a Virginia military base was gone, stump and all, before anyone had a chance to object.
”Surprise, stealth, and swiftness have historically been key elements in successful campaigns,” Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted with satisfaction.
As in warfare, so, too, in life.
Powell, nominated Saturday to become President-elect Bush’s secretary of state, has risen to prominence – soon to be unmatched by any black American in government – with hesitation before most every step, then full-bore action if he decides to proceed. As a military strategy, that approach is known as the Powell doctrine.
The question now becomes whether a soldier-statesman who has accepted the label ”reluctant warrior” will be a reluctant diplomat.
Powell, a former national security adviser to Ronald Reagan with Washington experience dating to the Jimmy Carter administration, will bring his celebrated charm and integrity to the job if confirmed, as everyone believes he will be.
He’ll be the subject of enormous expectations, too, stirred by his status as one of America’s most popular figures and the distinction the son of Jamaican immigrants will hold as the first black secretary of state.
And yet, paradoxically for a man so strong of personality, he may be ”low key” in his conduct of foreign policy, said retired three-star Marine Gen. Bernard Trainor, who knew Powell from the early Ronald Reagan years and wrote a book partly critical of his role in the Persian Gulf War.
”He’ll be very cautious,” Trainor said. ”This is the man’s nature.
”You will see a very circumspect secretary of state, a very persuasive secretary of state, who knows the instruments of power domestically and internationally and will play them very discreetly.”
The Dream Candidate:
Colin (pronounced coe-lin) Luther Powell, 63, is one of the few Americans who could be named secretary of state and still be considered an underachiever.
For Republicans, the party he’s supported since voting for Reagan in 1980, he’s been a clear but complicated blessing, giving them star power yet overshadowing their politicians when it came time to start picking a presidential candidate.
Polls – and the rapturous welcome he gets from crowds – have made obvious at least since the Gulf War that many Americans see in him the mettle to be president. In a nation hungry for a hero, Democrats have been drawn to him, too.
”He stands for all the right things,” North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat, said when Powell enlisted his help in America’s Promise, a group that encourages volunteerism on behalf of children.
Powell has made a small career out of disavowing interest in the presidency. He has recognized that the public’s high esteem for him never faced the test that can diminish heroes when they become politicians.
”That number you always see is a popularity number – it’s not a political number,” he said of the polls in a speech this year to newspaper executives. He went on to talk about patriotism and needy children.
A man who refers often to America’s legacy of racism, he is also one to talk beyond the American preoccupation with race.
As is typical, his speech that day turned his audience into admiring goo.
Trainor said Powell’s skill with people could go a long way in foreign affairs if there is a solid policy behind it. This, he said, could mark a productive change from the bluntness of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
”Being blunt and direct works with very few cultures other than our own,” said Trainor, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. ”That’s not the way of the Far East and it’s not the way of the Middle East. People talk around subjects to get to a bottom line.”
Powell, he said, is ”a marvelous salesman. His is going to be a more seductive approach.”
Powell’s approach may be different in other ways, too.
He says he opposes the demonization of U.S. adversaries – the way Noriega in Panama, Saddam in the Gulf War and Slobodan Milosevic in the Balkans campaign were each cast as the ”devil incarnate” to build U.S. support.
As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell was key in assembling a force of astonishing strength in freeing Kuwait from Iraq in the Gulf War. Once committed, he was deeply committed.
In his autobiography, Powell recalls lingering in the first hours of the air war over an appropriate ”sound bite” to describe the campaign against the occupying Iraqi army. He came up with: ”First, we are going to cut it off, and then we are going to kill it.”
But Powell, before and after, exhibited familiar hesitation. He favored continuing sanctions longer than some others in George Bush’s administration did. The war that elevated his reputation ended with Saddam Hussein still – to this day – in power.
Before the Gulf War, Powell did not favor intervention when a brewing but short-lived coup in Panama gave the United States an early chance to get rid of Manuel Noriega, perhaps without the invasion that eventually followed.
Powell was hesitant about U.S. involvement in Bosnia and, in Somalia in the early months of the Clinton administration, he did not favor a stepped up military presence that some analysts say may have protected U.S. soldiers from a firefight that killed 18.
Time and again in his book, ”My American Journey,” Powell turns to his mantra. ”Have a clear political objective and stick to it,” he says. ”Use all the force necessary, and do not apologize for going in big if that is what it takes.”
But if the objective is not clear or worth it, don’t do it. Called a reluctant warrior, Powell said, ”Guilty. War is a deadly game; and I do not believe in spending the lives of Americans lightly.”
Some hope he will be more activist as a diplomat than his military background suggests.
”If the so-called Powell doctrine literally means you’ll only move with overwhelming force anywhere in the world, I think that’s a prescription for disaster,” says Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. ”It means basically you won’t move anywhere.”
His passion is fixing old Volvos.
”My idea of a good time is to disconnect every wire, tube, hose, cable, and bolt of an engine,” he says. ”I enjoy best working in solitude.”
He’s had precious little of that in his rise through the bureaucracy as a military and national security aide. At times he wished he could ”have Washington forget about me” and he periodically returned to Army troop commands, only to be summoned back before long.
Even as chairman of the joint chiefs, he was used for tokenism by the very department he is soon to lead, according to his book.
He recalled that on the day Iraq invaded Kuwait, he was attending a lunch with Togo’s president. ”The State Department liked having black African leaders meet prominent African-Americans and milked these occasions for all they were worth,” he wrote.