BY DAVID H. HACKWORTH
December 18, 2000
A GOOD MAN BACKED UP BY A CARDBOARD TIGER
Dubya's first pick out of the Cabinet box was a winner. Colin Powell as Secretary of State is like holding a royal flush in a no-limit poker game. Few Americans have his unique qualifications in war and peace; he has the right stuff to steer our nation with a steady hand through the dangerous shoals and violent storms we'll face.
Powell, who brings enormous hands-on experience to the job, actually did not have a standout soldier's career until 1972, when, after a second tour in Vietnam (where he learned the hows and whys of fighting a losing war the hard way) and a shot at advanced schooling, he became a gofer in the White House. There, the high-stakes players were impressed enough by his horse sense, style and substance to ID him as a water-walker, someone who'd go to the top unless he pulled an Oliver North.
Next he attended the National War College, where the best and brightest of our future generals, admirals and State Department whiz kids are trained, learning from great thinkers present and past, such as the 19th century's Karl "War is nothing but the extension of politics by other means" von Clausewitz.
Powell went on to key positions in the Carter and Reagan administrations, where he worked closely with such big boys as Frank Carlucci and Caspar Weinberger. When Reagan -- with whom he developed a special relationship -- tapped him to be the National Security Advisor, he got to apply Clausewitz's theories while rubbing elbows with the power brokers who run the world. As an example, he was a key player in the Reagan-Gorbachev summit that resulted in the treaty to destroy all intermediate-range nuclear weapons.
In August 1989, President George Bush made him Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where he proved brilliantly adept at both the infighting within the D.C. Beltway and the tough slogging in situations like the 1989 invasion of Panama, which for him confirmed all the Clausewitzian lessons. Powell wrote: "Have a clear political objective and stick to it. Use all the force necessary and do not apologize for going in big if this is what it takes. Decisive force ends war quickly and in the long run saves lives."
A year later, he was tested again when Iraq grabbed Kuwait. Powell told the nation what he would do to the Iraqi army: "First we're going to cut it off, then we're going to kill it." He got it half-right; he did cut it off, but also committed his first and only big-time blooper when he went along with President Bush and let the Father of All Bullies, Saddam Hussein, and his army escape.
For sure, he learned from that bad call. Ten years later, the war that made him as high profile as Ike still grinds on. Ironically, it will be one of the many sticky problems he'll be taking over from the Clinton administration. But these days the Desert Storm force he skippered in 1991 is on its knees, barely capable of a desert shower.
Like another successful soldier-turned-diplomat, George C. Marshall, Powell isn't quick to slap leather. If anything, as with most who've experienced war, he's almost reluctant to turn to the military solution. But because of Madeleine Albright and her team's numerous bad calls over the past eight years, he'll be busy from Day One with all the problems on boil that have been botched, blinked at or band-aided -- the Middle East, the Gulf, Red China, Colombia, nuclear-armed Hatfields and McCoys in India and Pakistan and mad terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction who are all too ready-and-willing to do a nasty number on us.
Powell will be dealing with a world where our embassies are battle-rattled and bunkered, our foreign policy is in tatters, and where old allies have lost confidence in made-in-Arkansas leadership. With a Europe that wants to defend itself, and where "Yankee Go Home" is now chanted around the globe far more than "Drink Coca-Cola."
Colin Powell hopefully will repair the damage done by the Albright amateurs. But he won't be able to perform at personal and political best until our new president pumps up our military and gives this steady man the Clausewitz kind of muscle to smack the bad guys hard when push comes to shove.