Colin L. Powell's 'Journey' is the key to his performance

The Argument

Unlike many autobiographies, his book is increasingly informative as his influence moves forward.


September 01, 2002|By David Kusnet | By David Kusnet,Special to the Sun

A year after terrorists attacked America, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is an indispensable but enigmatic figure. Respected at home and abroad, he is the most effective spokesman for Bush administration policies, but news reports suggest he has doubts about threatening pre-emptive wars or putting the Middle East peace process on hold.

Ever the loyal soldier, Powell never publicly dissents from administration policies. But skillful diplomat that he is, Powell rarely displays the zeal of other administration officials. So what does he really think? And what will he do if President Bush rejects his reputedly dovish advice while relying on his undisputed diplomatic skills?

Surprisingly, some of the best clues can be found in his best-selling autobiography, My American Journey (Ballantine Books, 644 pages, $6.99). Unlike most celebrity memoirs, it is informative. Indeed, it is even more informative now than when it sold 1.3 million copies in hardcover and paperback seven years ago, at the peak of its impact. Powell paints a self-portrait similar to but subtler than the hero-figure Americans admire. A 35-year-veteran of the U.S. Army who re-entered civilian life as a Republican, Powell writes that the United States should continue to lead the world. But, as a Vietnam veteran who lost several close friends in combat, he also acknowledges that he is "a reluctant warrior," as the journalist Bob Woodward wrote in The Commanders, his account of decision-making in the first Bush administration during the Gulf War.

Thus, the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff sees the use of force as a last resort, not a reflex. Drawing on the lessons of Vietnam, he repeatedly writes that the United States should intervene militarily only with clear objectives, public support and an "exit strategy."

Powell also makes clear that he believes in building coalitions with other countries, from old friends, such as the nations of Western Europe, to new partners, such as post-communist Russia, or even old adversaries with common interests, such as Syria during the Gulf War.

While these views are well-known, My American Journey shows how Powell's emphasis on and aptitude for diplomacy flow from his life experience and are intrinsic to his view of the world. Powell has been a bridge-builder all his life. He was shaped by experiences that transcend his American identity. And, while a fervent patriot, he is also capable of seeing the United States through the eyes of the rest of the world -- a skill that is essential but uncommon among the nation's policymakers.

The son of Jamaican immigrants, Powell has an immediate affinity not only with the West Indies but also with other countries whose cultures were shaped by the British Empire. Raised in a multi-ethnic, working-class neighborhood in the South Bronx, he grew up among blacks, Hispanics and white ethnics of every origin and remains the street-smart New Yorker, always identifying his neighborhood, college and Army buddies by their ethnic origins.

A City College graduate who once worked in a soda-bottling plant, Powell reveals himself as a product not only of black America but also of blue-collar America. A far cry from patrician predecessors such as John Foster Dulles and Cyrus Vance, Powell remembers every promotion he ever received, the take-home pay for every job he ever held, the price for every house he ever bought, the make of every car he ever owned and the name of every union he or his parents ever joined. He also seemingly remembers the names of every mentor, every fraternity brother, and every Army buddy who died on the battlefield. In short, he's one member of the foreign-policy establishment whose experiences, values and vocabulary are not foreign to most Americans.

Powell's experiences and outlook prepare him to present the nation's policies not only to domestic audiences but also to foreign leaders and peoples. While his public persona is an easygoing man at ease in the world, Powell has spent much of his life as something of an outsider -- a West Indian among black Americans, a black man among white ethnics, a City College graduate in an Army dominated by West Pointers, a military man assigned to work with civilians in various stints during the 1970s and '80s, and an African-American in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and both Bushes.

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