Q&A: Richard Haass on Colin Powell

Q&A: Richard Haass on Colin Powell

November 15, 2004 9:00 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations who served as Colin Powell's director of policy planning at the State Department, says that the outgoing secretary of state "plays the game by the rules." Reviewing his former boss' tenure, Haass says that, given the cast of characters at the top of the administration, Powell shared control over formulation of foreign policy. Observers "were unrealistic--and history has proved them to be unrealistic--in their assumption or prediction that Powell would be the dominant figure," Haass says.

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"At the end of the day, the president was and remains the dominant figure in American foreign policy," Haass says. "And, secondly, Secretary of State Powell had to contend not only with an activist president, but with the most active vice president in history [Dick Cheney] and with an extremely active and capable secretary of defense [Donald Rumsfeld] who was, shall we say, a bureaucratic Samurai. For all these reasons, the assumptions or predictions proved wrong. It simply turned out to be a much more crowded and competitive policy-making environment."

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Haass gives Powell credit for his work in improving relations with China and for bringing India and Pakistan back "from the brink." He also cites "Powell's support for a more active United States policy in Africa" and praises the secretary for improvements he made to the Foreign Service.

Haass was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on November 15, 2004.

When President-elect George W. Bush announced in December 2000 that he was naming Colin Powell secretary of state, there was great excitement in Washington, because Powell's popularity at the time was higher than the president's. Over the next four years, Powell's star seemed to diminish. Can you trace this transition?

You're right to say that there was great excitement, not simply in the State Department but in much of the country as well about Colin Powell's becoming secretary. I think it was based on one piece of accurate information and one that I would call inaccurate.

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The accurate part was the assessment of the man. This is someone who was well known from his time as chairman of the Joint Chiefs and national security adviser. So for good reason, people welcomed his appointment. What I think was inaccurate was the assumption of many people that he would dominate the making of American foreign policy in the Bush administration. If you remember, Al Haig [President Reagan's secretary of state, 1981-82] once used the word "vicar" to describe his role. I think there was an assumption in some parts that Colin Powell would be the "vicar"--the first among unequals.

The assumption was--as it was in the early Reagan days--that the president was uncomfortable in foreign affairs, and no one knew at that time about Powell's intellectual opponents in the Bush administration?

My only point in this regard is that people were unrealistic--and history has proved them to be unrealistic--in their assumption or prediction that Powell would be the dominant figure. At the end of the day, the president was and remains the dominant figure in American foreign policy. And secondly, Secretary of State Powell had to contend not only with an activist president, but also with the most active vice president in history [Dick Cheney] and with an extremely active and capable secretary of defense [Donald Rumsfeld] who was, shall we say, a bureaucratic Samurai. For all these reasons, the assumptions or predictions proved wrong. It simply turned out to be a much more crowded and competitive policy-making environment.

More on:

United States

People have made a lot of assumptions about what Powell might have said or might have done if his way had been accepted. I guess Powell was the classic "good soldier." He never complained publicly, as far as I know.

I think Colin Powell has an old-fashioned but what I believe to be admirable approach to the definition of loyalty. Loyalty essentially means you tell your boss what you believe in private. And then, once the decision is made, in public you defend the decision as if it were your own, regardless of whether you got your way or not. I think that's essentially his code. In Washington, my experience has often been the opposite. By that I mean I have come across a lot of people who in private failed to give the president honest advice, and then, after a decision was made, actually went out of their way to undermine it. Colin Powell plays the game by the rules. That's one of the reasons I think he is such an admirable person.

As you look back, what do you think his finest moment was? Getting the president to go to the United Nations Security Council on Iraq in 2002 instead of going directly to war?

What was important was persuading the president that if he was going to go ahead with the war in Iraq, it was essential that the United States bring as much of the international community as it could with it. And essentially, the process that led up to and became Security Council Resolution 1441 was generated and carried out by Colin Powell. That's clearly got to be one of the highlights. Also, after 9/11, the process of putting together the collective international response in the United Nations and beyond to introduce a global effort against terrorism was in large part his.

I would like to mention two other issues that are often unnoticed. One was China. If you recall, the first foreign policy crisis of the Bush administration was China in April 2001. There was the forced landing of the United States Navy surveillance EP-3 on Hainan Island. You had quite a number of voices in the administration who saw China as either an existing or inevitable adversary. Colin Powell clearly argued otherwise. He made the case that it was both necessary and possible for the United States to develop a constructive relationship with China. And essentially, he did just that. He was central in unwinding the airplane incident and in getting the U.S.-China relationship back on track, to the point where now, I would argue, U.S.-China relations are probably better than they have ever been.

Another area is India-Pakistan. Powell, as well as his deputy, Richard Armitage, deserve considerable credit for helping these two countries come back somewhat from the brink. The temperature, if you will, between India and Pakistan today is several degrees less, in the best sense of the word, than it was a few years ago.

If I were going to mention other things, I would probably cite Powell's support for a more active United States policy in Africa, the HIV-AIDS initiative, for instance. Another thing he did, which gets no coverage, but which may prove valuable over time, is the work he did inside the Foreign Service and the State Department. Colin Powell came out of a career in the military. The military as an institution is phenomenally good at developing its own. It devotes considerable time and money to training its people, developing their leadership skills. When Powell came to the State Department, he encountered another institution, the Foreign Service, which virtually ignores those things, which hardly ever invested in its own future leaders. What you saw under Powell was tremendous emphasis given to recruitment of talented young men and women. This is something that has the potential to pay dividends in the future.

I suppose most people would say that Powell's biggest disappointment was his February 2003 appearance before the U.N. Security Council in which he made an eloquent case for Iraq's possession or development of weapons of mass destruction.

I expect a lot of people will point that out in the so-called post-mortems about his resignation, and see that as his low moment. But let me say two things. One is that what he went with was 100 percent of what he thought was the case at the time. There was no spinning or misleading in any deliberate way. Secondly, as someone who was somewhat involved in the process of preparing him for his testimony--two of the people who worked for me worked full time on that process--I was impressed at the time how serious the vetting was.

What was impressive to me at the time was what did not get into his Security Council presentation. All the things that people pressed him to include which he said "no" to. It's ironic. Sometimes on the inside of government, you're aware of the 90 percent of the material that didn't end up in the speech or statement, whereas in this case, the world has reacted to the 10 percent that did.

That whole presentation took him several days to put together. His instinct was that if you erred, err on the side on understating the case, rather than overstating it. Only in retrospect has it turned out that even that turned out to be an overstatement. But I really feel in this case--maybe I am betraying my own loyalty to Colin Powell--he does not deserve criticism.

I guess the most frustrating time must have been the period leading up to the war when there was an effort, at the urging of Britain, to try to get a second Security Council resolution to endorse military action. It has been said that the French had said prior to the debate, "Don't seek another resolution, just go to war," and the British felt they had to have the second resolution. In hindsight, is there any feeling that if there had been more time given to debate, you could have gotten a second resolution?

I can't speak for Powell on that. As for me, it is not clear that more time would have done it. Just imagine another month would have gone by. Or even two months. And the inspectors had found nothing in those two months, as hindsight leads us to believe probably would have been the case. It is not at all obvious to me that at that point, the French or anyone else who had opposed the resolution would have said "Okay, now you've given it enough time. Go ahead." I am not of the view that more time would have solved the diplomatic dilemma and I really believe the United States faced a dilemma, which essentially was that on one hand you had a resolution in hand, Resolution 1441, which arguably provided you with an adequate basis for going to war and, on the other hand, the British, in particular, wanted a second resolution for domestic political reasons.

And on the third hand, if you'll allow me, you had the reality that the French and others on the council were not going to vote for it and were not going to abstain. So once you began on the road for a second resolution, it was clearly damned if you do, damned if you don't. What would have been far worse than anything that was done would have been if the administration had driven it to a vote, lost the vote, and gone to war anyway. And that course of action, in my view, was wisely rejected.

I think some people are disappointed that Powell is not staying on to see the Middle East possibilities explored in this period following Yasir Arafat's death.

I actually do believe there is some possible opening now. But then it makes sense that whoever is going to be in this job for the bulk of the next four years is the individual who is going to build the necessary relationships. It should be the next secretary of state who deals with whatever Palestinians emerge from their elections in roughly two months time.

Who should be the next secretary?

I would say that if you are president, you would want someone up to speed on the issues, who is not going to face a difficult confirmation, someone who you are comfortable with. There is too much going on now for the United States to call time out while it sorts its foreign policy team. I don't believe the United States has that luxury now. This is not a time for on the job training. This is not a time for domestic political dust-up. In the next few months, you have the issues of Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Iraqi elections, the post-Arafat period, and any number of issues. All this argues for a quick and seamless transition at the State Department.

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