The world's most famous invisible man

September 09, 2001|By Trudy Rubin

PHILADELPHIA - Maybe we all expected too much from Colin Powell.

When the charismatic ex-general was appointed secretary of state, he seemed the perfect choice to shape a foreign policy vision for a president who lacked one.

He was a glamorous diplomat-warrior. He looked just the ticket to tone down the administration's gung-ho "Star Wars" crowd with a dose of realism honed by years of military service. He seemed poised to become the great articulator, to explain why America must remain internationalist.

Instead, he has become the world's most famous invisible man.

He was physically absent, of course, from Durban, South Africa, where his powerful presence might just have yanked the U.N. conference on race back from Arab political diatribes.

But Mr. Powell has also become virtually vaporous on the major U.S. foreign policy issue of the day.

The No. 1 foreign policy item for the Bush administration is the building of missile defenses against future strikes by "rogue nations" such as North Korea, Iraq or Iran.

The technology is highly uncertain, and the policy involves abandoning key treaties. It also will reshape our relations with Europe, Russia, China and the Koreas.

This is heavy stuff that must be handled with caution. Mr. Powell supports the missile defense concept but wants to proceed slowly and consult thoroughly with our allies and Russia - lest we upset key relationships long before we achieve any missile defense breakthroughs.

But Mr. Powell isn't setting the tone or the pace of the policy. Instead, he is being used primarily for damage control.

Front and center on missile defenses are Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Mr. Rumsfeld regularly blasts off in public - and in the media - on the need for moving forward quickly with missile defenses.

Ms. Rice gave a major hard-line policy speech on the subject in June; Mr. Powell has yet to make any major foreign policy addresses. Ms. Rice recently traveled to Moscow on an extraordinary mission to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and discuss missile defenses, while Mr. Powell has been meeting with the relatively unimportant Russian minister of foreign affairs.

The administration calls on Mr. Powell - the skilled diplomat - to soothe ruffled European feathers when our NATO allies get nervous about missile defenses. Too often, Mr. Rumsfeld, or Ms. Rice, or President Bush, then issues another broadside indicating that the United States will soon build them, no matter the allies' (or Russians') objections.

Little wonder the allies are beginning to question whether Mr. Powell has much clout.

More to the point is whether the secretary has become mere window dressing for the administration.

Mr. Powell is a Bush-pere moderate among a stable of Bush-fils hard-liners, a multilateralist on a team that believes the United States is so powerful that others have no choice but to follow along or be rendered irrelevant. This view appears to be held strongly by President Bush.

Perhaps Mr. Powell is fighting hard in private for his ideas. If so, the level of his influence will become clear only when we see whether the administration pursues missile defenses wisely or with undue haste.

But what's already clear is that Mr. Powell, like the loyal soldier he is, defers to the president on foreign affairs.

It's no use expecting him to go public with his grievances or to put forward a broad foreign policy vision of his own.

In May, I asked the State Department's No. 2 man, Richard Armitage, a close friend of Mr. Powell's, about European references to Mr. Powell as their last lifeboat on an uncertain sea of Bush policymaking.

Mr. Armitage was blunt: "The president makes the policy. The secretary helps formulate it.

"Secretary of State Powell is the most charismatic secretary we've ever had, and he brings a certain celebrity and cache," Mr. Armitage went on. "But the president is able to stand on his own."

Pausing for a moment, Mr. Armitage added, "If Powell is the lifeboat, the president is the Queen Mary, or the SS United States."

I've never seen a lifeboat that pulled a superliner behind.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, PA 19101, or by e-mail at trubin@phillynews.com.

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