WASHINGTON -- What most irritates Colin Powell in his final days as secretary of state is the notion he is leaving government involuntarily as a defeated policymaker. In fact, he is upbeat in his belief that he won out on issue after issue over his adversaries in the Bush administration. Powell's concern appears to be lack of certainty that anybody will play his role as reluctant warrior in George W. Bush's second term.
That role by this professional soldier was to point out to his civilian colleagues the limits of military power in the 21st century even when exercised by the world's only superpower. Powell clearly is not confident that his successor, Condoleezza Rice, will follow in his footsteps. It is not easy to grapple with two grizzled veterans of the bureaucratic wars: Don Rumsfeld, who will be around for a while, and Dick Cheney, who will be around all four years.
Powell was reluctant to commit U.S. forces to combat because he knows how terrible war is. That, indeed, is his legacy. Opposing those around the Cabinet table who wanted a totally unilateral strike on Iraq, Powell convinced President Bush he should go to the United Nations. He was successful in achieving non-military approaches to North Korea, Iran and Syria.
Powell is a proud man who is not happy with the word around Washington that he is some sort of disappointed slug lying around the State Department with a black cloud over his head. "I leave here pretty pleased with what I have been able to do for my country for four years," he said. He sees himself and his sidekick, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, leaving with their heads held high.
Powell disputes the reports, spread by some of his friends, that he came to the president on Friday, Nov. 12 with a conditional offer to stay on as secretary of state and was then given his walking papers. Rather, he contends he and Bush talked it over weeks before the election, with Powell stating that he wanted to leave. Indeed, he and Armitage long ago were privately describing themselves as one-termers.
The unfinished business in Powell's view consists of an Israeli-Palestinian solution and, of course, Iraq. Powell is no dove. He lists removal of despotic regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq as among the Bush administration's great feats. In public speeches, he often refers to Iraq as "a long patrol," adding: "I don't quit on long patrols." "Nobody expected an insurgency this vibrant, this determined," he admits.
Trained in the military code that you don't publicly criticize your superior or brother officers, Powell does not speak ill of his colleagues in government. He is a neo-Wilsonian in seeing America's role as spreading democracy through the world and considers that mission a post-Cold War success story for the United States. But he is clearly no admirer of the doctrine of pre-emption. Iraq was the only instance of a Bush pre-emption in the opinion of Powell, who saw the military operation in Afghanistan as a counterattack against Osama bin Laden.
While believing better relations should be sought with France and Germany, Powell is more concerned with anti-American public opinion. He feels the problem is more a question of how U.S. officials talk than what they say. Americans often talk as though they know best and know exactly what has to be done, which Powell does not believe works well in diplomatic circles.
Colin Powell is no slug today. He is feisty, confident and, at 67, not nearly ready for retirement. The leadership of New York's desiccated Republican Party would love for him to run for anything he wants, but he will not do it. He crossed that bridge when he decided not to run for president in 1996.
But would he rule out a return to government someday? "No," he says, "I would never rule that out because I don't know what the future might hold. But I have ruled out any political office." That is for the distant future. For the immediate future, he will be missed in the second Bush administration, where there is nobody to take up his legacy.