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Secretary of State Colin Powell Resigns

November 15, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: We’re joined by Raymond Tanter, who served on the National Security Council staff under the Reagan and first Bush administrations; Nancy Soderberg, who held senior positions on the national security staff and the U.S. delegation to the U.N. under President Clinton; and Richard Perle, who was an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. Welcome to you all.

Today the president’s spokesman said in response to questions about Secretary Powell’s departure the president is going to move as quickly as possible, to name a replacement, and build on the great work that Secretary Powell has done.

Richard Perle, does Colin Powell prepare to leave with the administration thinking that he’s done great work?

RICHARD PERLE: I think he’s done great work. It was his fate to be the nation’s top diplomat at a time when some of the urgent problems we faced could not be dealt with by diplomatic means. There was no way to deal diplomatically with Osama bin Laden or with the Taliban in Afghanistan, or with Saddam Hussein.

And, so in the end, you can only take diplomacy so far, and the president was forced reluctantly to resort to the use of force where diplomacy couldn’t be effective. But Colin Powell himself was a wonderfully articulate and effective representative of American policy.

RAY SUAREZ: Raymond Tanter do you agree with that analysis and you do think Colin Powell leaves thinking that he’s been an effective secretary of state?

RAYMOND TANTER: Well, Ray, my take is that the president made the right choice at the right time in accepting Powell’s resignation. Why? Because the president traded diversity of opinion on one hand for coherence of policy on the other hand.

When you’re dealing with World War IV, the war on global terrorism you need to send coherent signals to people like Osama bin Laden, to the Moammar Qaddafi’s of the world, to the rogue states if you will, and when you have someone who is singing a moderate song at Foggy Bottom, clashing with someone at defense and at the White House who is talking in a muscular foreign policy tone, that sends mixed signals, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: Nancy Soderberg, was the United States sending mixed signals during the last four years?

NANCY SODERBERG: Yes, unfortunately they were. I mean, Secretary Powell had a realist approach to the world, and tried to engage us in the search for an end to the nuclear weapons programs in North Korea and a search for peace in the Middle East and was consistently undercut by this administration.

That said, his whole life has been dedicated to public service and he leaves with a fine record on that level. But the last four years as secretary of state will not have been seen to be among his shining moments. He simply was never given the confidence of the White House or the power to drive American foreign policy.

RAY SUAREZ: So you say he leaves with a sterling record, you don’t see him as a person who was reduced by this last job on his federal resume, if you compare today to his confirmation hearing, to the cabinet rock star status he had before 9/11, you still see him as that kind of towering figure?

NANCY SODERBERG: I think his overall public service is one that will leave him a place in history; as I said the last four years as secretary of state will not be what puts him in that place. He’s been consistently undermined by a White House who believed the myth that we could go it alone without our allies, and Colin Powell was consistently a voice of reason trying to push the administration to deal with reality and was consistently overruled.

Now, this resignation comes at a time when you have a very full inbox on foreign policy, the war on terrorism, the mess in Iraq, but you also have a new need to engage in the Middle East peace process following the death of Yasser Arafat. There was an agreement on the Iranian nuclear weapons program today that will need to be followed up on. And the big danger out there of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has been put aside for the last four years and you need to move that forward.

So all of these issues have not been addressed as strongly as they would have had Colin Powell had a say in where American foreign policy was going, larger than the one White House enabled him. So, yes, his star is tarnished, although it’s a very bright star, he’s done enormous service to this country, but on foreign policy the White House has really undermined his ability to get things done and his reputation.

RAY SUAREZ: Richard Perle, maybe you could weigh in on what Nancy Soderberg referred to as the undermining. Publicly, both Pentagon officials and State Department people would say, being quoted by name, that there was nothing to it; that the rifts were exaggerated, that there are always tensions between the two cabinet departments, but privately and without names attached, terrible infighting was being talked about. What do you have memories of those times?

RICHARD PERLE: Well, I certainly disagree with the idea that Colin Powell was undermined by the president he served. Colin Powell as the nation’s top diplomat did what all diplomats do. He tried to find political and diplomatic solutions to very difficult problems, some of which were simply not amenable to diplomacy or politics. And so it is quite wrong and unfair to Colin Powell to describe as a failure on his part.

It is also unfair to describe the president as undermining Colin Powell when the president concluded that diplomacy could not be effective and he would have to turn instead to the use of force as he believed was necessary in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and in the war on terrorism. So I think Colin Powell did as fine a job as it was possible to do, dealing with problems that were intractable and not amenable to diplomatic solutions.

RAY SUAREZ: Raymond Tanter did Colin Powell think he was being undermined?

RAYMOND TANTER: I don’t think so. I’ve had the privilege of knowing Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld and I think the team served the president very well from the point of view of sending multiple points of view forward. Let me take issue with something Nancy Soderberg just said. She said that Bush administration’s first term was characterized by unilateralism.

There’s a fundamental difference between a multilateral approach of say going through the U.N. and going through NATO, institutions if you will, formal institutions, on one hand, and having a coalition of the willing on the other hand. You can have multilateralism, Ray, without going through formal institutions. That said, the administration went the last mile through a set of formal institutions, the U. N. Security Council, before it launched the attack in 2003 in Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: Indeed, Nancy Soderberg, Colin Powell was widely credited as forcing the administration to turn to the U.N. in that case; how did it work out?

NANCY SODERBERG: Well, I think he did deserve credit and largely the full credit for getting the administration to go to the U.N., but it was a very short lived victory, as they quickly pulled the plug on that effort. And I think the case of Iraq shows the myth of the superpower and that you can go it alone without allies.

It’s not a real coalition in Iraq, and ultimately the administration has come back to the UN, has come back to the international community to try and move things forward. I think the real test right now for the Bush administration is, does it want to continue on this course of unilateralism, and it’s beyond just Iraq and Afghanistan,

I agree with Richard that the military solution there wasn’t really Colin Powell’s to get involved with. But there’s a whole host of other international arms control treaties, the North Korea problem, the Iran problem, obviously the Middle East problem where diplomacy and working with others to help share those burdens is essential.

Now, if as expected Rice goes to the State Department, Rumsfeld, who was widely thought to be on his way out, appears to be staying, depending on who replaces Rice at the White House, you may end up having a group of ideologues running the foreign policy without the voice of reason that Colin Powell brought. And we’ll see where that leads us. It will be very much determined by the personalities that the president chooses for his second term, and early indications are that it will be more like Rice than Powell.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Ray Tanter was vigorously shaking his head.

RAYMOND TANTER: I can’t buy this, Ray. There are no ideologues who are running policy amuck. George W. Bush is the president of the United States and it is his policy in Iraq for example that I think is by and large succeeding. From the point of view of transferring authority to the interim government that was done in June and elections are coming up. From the point of view of security, the South is relatively secure, the North is relatively secure.

I think some 80 percent of the Iraqi population is secure, waiting for the elections in January. Reconstruction aid is going forward. Some of the reconstruction aid is being diverted to security, there’s a constitutional basis for the Iraq War being laid. Take a look at this glass of water; it’s half full as far as I’m concerned. Nancy may think it’s half empty.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Colin Powell himself, Richard Perle, today when he was announcing his departure, ran down a list of places in the world that he thought were in better shape or at least had many more hopeful signs than when his administration came to office. Do you agree with that, is the world in better shape than it was in January 2001?

RICHARD PERLE: I certainly do agree with that. Remember, that after January 2001 the country was faced with the urgent necessity to deal with a radical terrorist movement that had demonstrated its ability to kill a large number of Americans, and that was determined to repeat that process, possibly with weapons of mass destruction.

And it is quite extraordinary that this administration with Colin Powell and Don Rumsfeld and the president and Condi Rice have succeeded first of all in preventing that next attack, which we had every reason to fear. It has now demonstrated that we will not tolerate governments who give sanctuary to terrorists; the president broke with all previous policy in doing that. It was bound to ruffle some feathers; it was bound to create some opposition. It was bound to be characterized as unilateralism.

But it was absolutely necessary, because we had compiled a record of not responding to acts of terror, and that emboldened the terrorists until we got to Sept. 11. So it’s a huge accomplishment to have started an effective response to the terrorist threat and to have done so in the way that I believe and the American people clearly believed on Election Day has been in the best interest of this country.

RAY SUAREZ: And very briefly, Nancy Soderberg, how about you on that same point, does Colin Powell leave the world a safer and possibly more peaceful place than he found it in January 2001? He ran down a list, Iraq, Mideast, China, North Korea.

NANCY SODERBERG: Well, I certainly think that Colin Powell helped shape the administration’s policies in a more reasoned way than they might have had he not been part of this. The question is: Could we do better in the next term, and how are they going to move that forward. I think having left the Middle East peace process aside for four years has not made us safer.

I think the animosity that’s been generated around the world where seven out of eight Muslim countries think we’re a threat to their nature has not made us safer, and I think the failure to solve the North Korea nuclear crisis has not made us safer. I do believe that we are moving on the al-Qaida front with the overthrow of Afghanistan, but that is still much to be done there.

So I think that we are not safer after four years. But I’m not sure that is Colin Powell’s fault. I think he’s tried to do the right thing and has made it better because of his presence certainly.

RAY SUAREZ: Nancy Soderberg, guests, thank you all.