Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Hitchens on Powell

In the November/December issue of Foreign Policy, Christopher Hitchens pens a critique of Colin Powell’s tenure as Secretary of State. Hitchens’ criticisms, interestingly, are not dissimilar to what he had to say when Powell was first nominated. Perhaps his most valid criticism of Powell’s tenure is:

The official historian of the State Department has calculated that Powell will have traveled less than any secretary in more than three decades. His three immediate predecessors voyaged abroad an average of 45 percent more than him. “Shuttle diplomacy” may well have been overpromoted by Henry Kissinger, but a politique de presence has an importance of its own, and Powell should not forget that it was very largely his own personality—large, affable, calm, and, yes, originally Caribbean—that landed him the post to begin with. I myself doubt that a diplomatic “offensive” by Powell would have melted the heart of the Elysee, but he incurs criticism not for failing, but for not trying.

Essentially, Hitchens’ argument for trying hits directly at the heart of what diplomacy is supposed to be about. Trying when you don’t have to, trying even when you know that it is futile is what makes for great foreign policy. When viewed within the context of the old adage that “a diplomat is someone who can tell you to go to hell and make you feel happy to be on your way” even if we never got France, Germany or Russia to change course, at least we would have put on a noticeable charm offensive. Perhaps Powell was ruled by a White House that couldn’t stomach the thought of having tried so publicly in the face of such impossible odds and perhaps his background as a military general, used to getting what he ordered, was too large a hurdle for Powell. Not inconsequentially, it occurs to me that this type of effort may have been what Sen. Kerry was suggesting was the right way. Too bad for Kerry he never would give anyone any specific idea about what he was talking about during the entire campaign.

Hitchens may also be correct in assessing that Powell will retain personal popularity after leaving the current administration. I suspect, though, history will not judge him kindly for his time at the head of the State Department.


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