Rethinking Saint Colin

Today’s Washington Post contains a glowing profile of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the changes she has made in the nation’s foreign-policy arena. Robin Wright and Glenn Kessler note her many substantial and subtle changes at a department often seen as an obstacle to carrying out George Bush’s foreign policy goals. In doing so, an undercurrent of unspoken criticism of Rice’s predecessor seems apparent:

Now six months on the job, Rice has clearly wrested control of U.S. foreign policy. The once heavy-handed Defense Department still weighs in, but Rice wins most battles — in strong contrast to her predecessor, Colin L. Powell. White House staff is consulted, but Rice designed the distinctive framework for the administration’s second-term foreign policy.
In short order, she has demonstrated a willingness to bend on tactics to accommodate the concerns of allies without ceding on broad principles, what she calls “practical idealism.” She also conducts a more aggressive personal diplomacy, breaking State Department records for foreign travel and setting up diplomatic tag teams with top staff on urgent issues. …
In the interview, Rice said she discovered on her first European trip that, particularly on the Iran issue, “somehow we’d gotten into a position where it was the United States that was the problem . . . that was not a good place to be.” So she formulated action that put the onus back on Iran and, later, North Korea.
“Sometimes the power of diplomacy is not just saying no, but figuring out a way to protect your interests and principles to help the other guy — or in this case the other countries — move forward as well,” Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said. “It is the kind of diplomacy some of our critics had felt we were no longer capable of, that we were a kind of superpower saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but not anywhere in between.”

When Rice first got nominated to this position, Democrats and editorialists expounded on the dangers of the president eliminating dissent from his Cabinet. They held Colin Powell as the last person of stature that would keep honest debate on policy occurring at the highest levels of the administration. Rice, by comparison, represented an attempt to surround the President with “yes men”, so to speak, that would simply do his bidding without argument. The results in Rice’s case, these experts predicted, would be further isolation and withdrawal of cooperation from allies around the world.
This started towards the end of Powell’s reign at State. Media organization love Colin Powell, and for good reason: he looks and sounds impressive, he served his country honorably for decades in and out of the military, and he communicates his clear and precise thinking with a moderation and gravitas that undoubtedly attracts attention. The media decided that Powell, who they had earlier derided for not airing his personal and policy differences with Bush publicly, was the Oracle of all wisdom on foreign policy and repeatedly featured him in article after article during Rice’s confirmation period and for a short time thereafter.
Now, however, the Post appears to have changed its mind, although one would have to have some familiarity with their previous coverage of Powell to recognize it. First, the article states several examples of Rice acting what many suppose Bush’s policies demand. She initiated one-on-one contact with North Korea in order to get the multilateral talks back on line. She overrules Donald Rumsfeld on foreign-policy efforts. Rice reinvented the policy on Iran, working with Europe to set a slate of incentives that the US would back in exchange for a verifiable cessation of their nuclear program. She even found a formulation that the Bush administration would not veto at the UN which allowed the International Criminal Court to investigate war crimes in the Sudan.
Rice did all of this in six months. Powell, for all his gravitas and supposed opposition to Bush, could not do this in four years, a fact only obliquely referenced by Wright and Kessler on the fact that Powell couldn’t get the Bush administration to even drop the “axis of evil” connotation for Iran. The Post also notes with a heavy helping of snark that Rice may “break … State Department records for foreign travel[.]” Certainly the notoriously home-bound Powell never threatened to do that in his tenure at State.
Once again, the media has “misunderestimated” George Bush. First, Powell may never have provided the dissent that his aides proclaimed through anonymous leaks to journalists. If he did, he certainly didn’t dissent very effectively. Second, this calls into question whether these positions that Rice has reversed ever were Bush’s policies or Powell’s. If Bush insisted on them, Rice certainly has changed his mind — something that Democrats and the media tried to convince Americans that could never happen without Powell at the helm at State.
The Post appears to have decided that Condi Rice has the right stuff to lead State, and even gets Senator Joe Biden, one of her critics during her confirmation, to grudgingly agree. They also seem to realize that Rice’s spectacular success calls into question all of the fawning coverage given to Colin Powell, especially towards the end of his time at State. They don’t have the courage to do this re-evaluation overtly, but they leave enough subtle clues to make this conclusion quite easily reached.

3 thoughts on “Rethinking Saint Colin”

  1. WashPost: Condi is different than Powell

    And they subtly imply that thats a good thing which is interesting given their constant praise of Colin Powell when he was Secretary of State.

  2. “Rethinking Saint Colin”

    A great headline at Captain’s Quarters. A great post, too: The Post appears to have decided that Condi Rice has the right stuff to lead State, and even gets Senator Joe Biden, one of her critics during her confirmation,…

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