Memo To: Bill Keller, NYTimes
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Your Impact on History
What a wonderful cover story you have written about Secretary Powell in the this week’s Sunday New York Times Magazine, “His Way: How Colin Powell Prevails.” I’d been fairly depressed in the last few days, worrying that the crazies in the Pentagon and their Amen corner in the national press corps were getting the upper hand in their eagerness to bomb Iraq back to the Stone Age. There have been extremely few magazine articles I’ve read over the decades that have changed the path of history in a palpable way, Mr. Keller, but I think yours might have that effect. The reason is that it appears at almost exactly the moment President Bush is beginning to think about what to do after the Taliban is wrapped up. If you had done a routine profile, rehashing the same old stuff, it would still have been interesting because you are good at rehash. But I think what you brought out really does justify the headline: How he prevails. Which really translates into “why he will prevail” in the coming struggle over how to deal with Iraq and the other “rogue states,” and probably why he will prevail in his approach to the half-century struggle between Arabs and Israelis.
Why? Because, perhaps without realizing it, you present Colin Powell as the giant of a man he is. Those of your readers who understand what comes through will see that Powell not only looks at every problem facing the United States from every possible angle, but also looks at every possible solution from the future looking back. It is so comforting to have Powell where he is at this moment in history. Of all the men in Washington in either party, or in the ruling class, he is the only one who regularly does this as a guiding principle.
His rules for the application of force have been maligned by more interventionist critics, liberal and conservative, as an excuse for inaction. “He is exceedingly cautious,” said an official who, like everyone with aspirations of influence, refused to criticize Powell for the record. “Cautious to the point where he will reject audacious opinions, even well-considered ones.” When asked about this, Powell retorted: “Caution is not a vice. I think it is a virtue. I know when to act. And if caution is such a terrible vice, then I’m sure the various people I’ve worked for over the years probably would not have hired me.”
For the record, I do not include Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld among “the bombers” who populate the administration, mainly because he makes an attempt to anticipate all the potential consequences of the use of force. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, on the other hand, is a “paint by the numbers” intellectual, who will say “Let’s drop some bombs and see what happens.” Unfortunately, the President’s National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, who you note is a black lady, is in fact as green as they come. He was not being condescending, I’m glad you noted, when he told you that he thinks of her as his “daughter.” Twice in the last ten days, Mr. Keller, I had to e-mail people in the White House about giant factual errors she had made about Iraq. What she knows about it she has learned from Wolfowitz, who can never best Colin Powell at the chessboard, even with all the help he can muster from his mentor, Richard Perle, or all his pals in the press corps. As you noted: “For a man who decided, after a long and public introspection in 1995, that he did not have the stomach for campaign politics, Powell is nimble at the parts of his job that resemble campaign politics – the flattering wisecrack, the command of detail, the much-repeated answer that sound fresh and the ability to be alert when everyone else is fall-down tired. All of this has served him during the accelerated diplomacy of assembling a war coalition, which is a little like playing chess on 20 boards at once against challengers with wildly differing opening gambits.”
You quote another person, “a diplomat who has sparred with Powell,” as saying: “He’s a smart linear thinker, with iron self-control, tremendous pride and self-confidence, great leadership skills, limited analytical skills and a commanding presence... It’s an amazing package.” Here, I’m afraid your diplomat is not smart enough to see that Powell is not a linear thinker and that he has powerful analytical skills, limited only by his field of vision. Here is one place in your article that I really wish I knew the source. In the same way, you probed Powell for his “vision” and came away with this:
The answer he gave was an articulate and utterly uncontroversial discourse on an America that would lead by the power of its example – a riff that paid effusive homage to Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.” Except for a somewhat heavier foot on the pedal of free markets than you might have heard from a Democratic administration, it was uplifting, nonpartisan boilerplate and seemed to confirm what just about everyone who has worked with Powell says about him, that he is a problem solver, not a visionary.
I’m afraid, Mr. Keller, that this is where I must quibble with you. If you think the idea of America leading by the power of its example is utterly uncontroversial boilerplate, I think you should take a look at the forces arrayed against this view by the “bombers” in both parties who believe America should lead with its fist. If you want to find a Republican with limited powers of analysis and linear thinking, read Peter Boyer’s excellent piece on Newt Gingrich in the November 26 New Yorker. Newt, my old friend who was great at running through brick walls until he found a really thick one, has been placed on the elite Defense Policy Board by Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz. Newt told Boyer that we should not wait until we wrap up Afghanistan and the Taliban. We should start bombing Iraq immediately, and while we are at it, we should bomb Iran, the Sudan and Somalia. It’s time to show them who is boss.