EDITORIAL: Exit Powell, enter Rice
US secretary of state Colin Powell has predictably resigned and national security adviser Dr Condoleezza Rice has taken over the Department of State. One always knew that Mr Powell’s deputy Richard Armitage — the man who negotiated terms with Pakistan after 9/11 — would also go with his boss. Mr Powell ran the State Department according to his lights and disagreed with many policies formed in the White House by President Bush and his neo-conservative friends. Now it will be run by one of these neo-con friends. There will be more streamlining between the White House and the State Department. Many in the State Department will realign; others will either leave or be sidelined. The CIA, too, is being purged of the Doubting Thomases.
The overhaul was on the cards. That’s why the ‘iron lady’, Dr Rice, has been sent to her new job. We can now expect American diplomats all over the world to speak with one voice, and to be less apologetic about Iraq policy; some might even become more aggressive in pushing a policy they formerly thought they could safely downplay. But it would be rash to think that Dr Rice will start cleaning the stables at the State Department immediately or that she will be telling everyone to become a hawk. Conceivably, the opposite might happen. She may start nudging President Bush to mend fences with Europe where she might exploit the residue of Mr Powell’s legacy to try and get the EU to fall in line with American policy.
Take Iran. Mr Powell was not in favour of starting another conflict in the region. He certainly did not want to take Iran by the neck on its not-so-secret nuclear proliferation. On this he had a kind of meeting of the minds with EU, even though the latest agreement clinched by Europe with Iran is no final guarantee that Iran is off the enrichment track and will not return to it. Dr Rice and her friends in the Department of Defense wanted tough action against Iran through the UN Security Council. Will she now go all guns blazing to the EU and ask the European s to agree and bring the matter of Iran’s proliferation to the Security Council? What might finally happen will in fact depend on what kind of rapprochement she manages to achieve between President Bush and the leaders of France and Germany.
Mr Powell was a great man by all counts. He had a popularity poll of 80 percent when President Bush’s was going down. He had had an extraordinarily distinguished career as a soldier and showed himself endowed with wisdom and statesmanship when it came to invading Iraq. Some say he spoiled his record by defending the invasion at the United Nations in 2003, but as far as he was concerned he was simply being obedient to his Supreme Commander. He knew that he had sufficiently put his demurral on record and he knew he would not be around during the second term of President Bush. In particular, the American policy on Pakistan was calibrated by him and his deputy, Mr Armitage. Will it change now?
Hardly. The Pakistan policy was one of the few successes of the Bush Administration. Pakistan ended up doing more for President Bush on the terrorist front than any other country. (Remember the real mandate of this American president was anti-terrorism.) It was the Department of State that afforded him repeated opportunities to come on TV and announce the arrest in Pakistan of such killers of Al Qaeda as Abu Zubaida, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and Bin Al Shibh. The success of America’s Pakistan policy was recognised and commended by the bipartisan commission that wrote up the Report on 9/11. If there is need to shake up some aspect of the policy laid down by Mr Powell, it doesn’t relate to Pakistan. Nor is Dr Rice expected to rattle too much the line taken on Saudi Arabia, she being an “oil-person” herself.
Being an academic, Dr Rice will probably take to heart some of the lessons radiating from the Rumsfeld-Powell tiff on Iraq — despite her loyalty to Mr Bush and his family. Mr Powell had opposed Mr Rumsfeld’s view that Iraq could be conquered and then held with a small number of American troops on ground. Mr Powell had calculated that half a million troops would be needed. As things have panned out in Iraq, the small number of troops has started telling on American strategy. Crucial detachments are being taken out of Fallujah and sent out to other cities where resistance has suddenly cropped up. One expects her to keep Mr Powell’s two caveats in mind as she takes President Bush to Europe: don’t let the “sole superpower” become isolated internationally and don’t strike pre-emptively anywhere in the Middle East.
The big test is surely going to come elsewhere in the Middle East, not because Palestine is inherently more important for the US than other areas but because its NATO partners including the United Kingdom want it to resume active diplomacy on it. The usual line for the defence of American inaction was Yasser Arafat’s ‘obstinacy’, that he let fall from his hands the deal Israeli Prime minister Ehud Barak had offered him during President Clinton’s term. But Yasser Arafat is gone now and the Palestinians face another election which they want everyone in the world to endorse. Some of their future leaders are known to be moderates who may listen to sane advice — being asked to commit suicide is not in that category. How will Dr Rice revive the American interest in Palestine? The problem has not been that the US was unwilling to do anything. It was that it just had no policy at all. This is an opportunity that may open new doors in the Middle East for Washington’s other initiatives in the region. *