The Return of the Powell Problem
by Robert Tracinski
Just when we thought Colin Powell was safely eased out of the decision making process for America's foreign policy, we find out that his malignant influence is still having an effect. According to an article in today's Washington Post:
"Former secretary of state Colin L. Powell is emerging as a behind-the-scenes player in the battle over John R. Bolton's nomination as ambassador to the United Nations, privately telling at least two key Republican lawmakers that Bolton is a smart but very problematic government official, according to Republican sources.The conflict in recent days has nominally been about accusations, dredged up by Democrats, that Bolton is "temperamental" and has a history of berating people who work with him. The allegations look pretty flimsy, and they are certainly not the main reason Democrats have opposed Bolton. The main reason is indicated by Powell's role.
"Powell spoke in recent days with Sens. Lincoln D. Chafee (RI) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.), two of three GOP senators on the Foreign Relations Committee who have raised concerns about Bolton's confirmation, the sources said. Powell did not advise the senators to oppose Bolton, but offered a frank assessment of the nominee as a man who was challenging to work with on personnel and policy matters, according to two people familiar with the conversations....
"Bolton served under Powell as his undersecretary of state for arms control, and the two were known to have serious clashes. Powell's tenure as secretary of state was often marked by friction with the White House on a range of foreign policy issues, disagreements that both sides worked to keep from surfacing."
In a February 1, 2002, column titled "The Powell Problem," I identified the essence of the problem with Powell's outlook:
"In this, as in most of his official actions, Powell is reversing the proper role of the Secretary of State. As the nation's chief diplomat, Powell is supposed to be America's advocate in dealing with the rest of the world. It is his job to stand up for America, to insist on our essential interests, to make our case to the world, and, if necessary, to make our threats.I don't agree with the Bush administration's approach to the UN, which mirrors their approach to the welfare state: they're not against it, they just want to "reform" it and manage it better so that it "works." But at least Bolton has been a vocal critic of the UN, and his past statements indicate that making the UN "work" means making it serve American interests. The prime example being bandied about by Bolton's critics is a 1994 speech in which he declared: "There is no such thing as the United Nations. There is an international community that can occasionally be led by the only real power left in the world—and that is the United States—when it suits our interests and when we can get others to go along."
"Instead, Powell has consistently acted as the world's advocate in America, representing the views and demands of our European and Arab 'allies.' Sure, it is his job to know what our allies want and to report their requests to the president; but it is not his job to go to bat for them. His job is to advise the president on how to achieve our interests, not how to placate our allies and enemies."
That is the issue at stake in this nomination fight.
The Washington Post's Dana Milbank inadvertently made the premise explicit when he described Democrats as attacking Bolton for "disparaging the very organization he would serve"—that institution being the United Nations. But the obvious rejoinder is that, as America's ambassador to the UN, Bolton will not "serve" the UN. He will, should, and must serve the United States.
The central question of the Bolton nomination is: whose interests are America's ambassadors supposed to serve? Are they supposed to represent and fight for America's interests—or are they supposed to be the ambassadors of appeasement, urging our leaders to accommodate our policy to the interests or demands of the rest of the world?
And that is why Bolton's nomination must be confirmed: to give the correct answer to this question.