Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

A Political General at King George's Court

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

A Political General at King George's Court

Article excerpt

A Political General at King George's Court

Eugene Bird, a retired foreign service officer, is president of the Council for the National Interest and diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Report.

At the Jan. 17 Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation love-fest for Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) ended the six-hour hearing by saying, "I feel so much better having a secretary of state who knows what it is like to use force." The senator's implied dig at Madeleine Albright ignored the fact that the outgoing secretary had never hesitated to use force, particularly against Saddam Hussain and in the Balkans.

Powell's testimony was described by another committee member as a tour de force--not to be confused with the usual diplomatic tour d'horizon. The general, it was agreed, will not waste time, and will be decisive in meeting the expectation of the committee, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats for the first time in history.

Despite the lack of a Republican majority, Powell was confirmed unanimously by the committee. Clearly he is the star, the Teflon candidate, of the Bush cabinet nominees.

Indeed, Powell was impressive. Once he had made his initial lengthy statement, he testified for five hours without any notes. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE) remarked in an ironic aside that the general had testified many times before committees on Capitol Hill and that he was noted for his intelligent, even smart and clever responses to questions. "And you are also very smart and clever about not answering a question, when you do not want to," Biden added.


Secretary Powell spent his 38 years in the military on the fast track. Born and raised in the Bronx, he is familiar with the politics of the pro-Israel lobby. He attended the same Bronx high school as Barry Schweid, dean of the State Department correspondents, and the two are acquaintances of long standing. Secretary Powell spent more than half his career, which included two separate tours in Vietnam, around Washington in various staff positions, one of which was as military security adviser to President Ronald Reagan.

Powell's briefing abilities are almost as legendary as those of the great Gen. George Marshall, secretary of state in the Truman administration, who was said to be able to take half a dozen questions from as many senators and then answer them in order, each time turning to the senator who had asked the particular question. It appears that the new secretary of state has a similar capability, a not unimportant quality: Much of diplomacy today--both with foreign leaders as well as with other cabinet secretaries, and even the president--is keyed to the telephone persuasiveness of the secretary.

Eisenhower made his reputation by his ability to stand up before a diverse and sometimes quarrelsome set of British and other Allied generals and politicians and, through his powers of persuasion and mastery of detail, forge a consensus.

Powell is in that mold, as well--and quite different from the last general who held the highest Cabinet position. Gen. Alexander Haig, secretary of state during the early Reagan years, depended on his manipulative abilities to work the bureaucracy. Haig was perhaps the worst secretary of state, and the shortest in tenure, of the 20th century.

Powell will make few mistakes. That means he probably will not make many decisions that push the edge of the diplomatic envelope. The expectations of the highly divided Senate are no doubt shared by the House of Representatives. Powell, after all, has a 75 percent approval rating with the American public. His problem may lie in meeting those expectations, particularly in the missile defense areas, but most notably in the Middle East.

At his confirmation hearing, Powell made three points about the Middle East: The Syrian track should not be ignored, and, indeed, following Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, might present an opportunity. …

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