A year after terrorists attacked America, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is an indispensable but enigmatic figure. Respected at home and abroad, he is the most effective spokesman for Bush administration policies, but news reports suggest he has doubts about threatening pre-emptive wars or putting the Middle East peace process on hold.
Ever the loyal soldier, Powell never publicly dissents from administration policies. But skillful diplomat that he is, Powell rarely displays the zeal of other administration officials. So what does he really think? And what will he do if President Bush rejects his reputedly dovish advice while relying on his undisputed diplomatic skills?
Surprisingly, some of the best clues can be found in his best-selling autobiography, My American Journey (Ballantine Books, 644 pages, $6.99). Unlike most celebrity memoirs, it is informative. Indeed, it is even more informative now than when it sold 1.3 million copies in hardcover and paperback seven years ago, at the peak of its impact. Powell paints a self-portrait similar to but subtler than the hero-figure Americans admire. A 35-year-veteran of the U.S. Army who re-entered civilian life as a Republican, Powell writes that the United States should continue to lead the world. But, as a Vietnam veteran who lost several close friends in combat, he also acknowledges that he is "a reluctant warrior," as the journalist Bob Woodward wrote in The Commanders, his account of decision-making in the first Bush administration during the Gulf War.
Thus, the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff sees the use of force as a last resort, not a reflex. Drawing on the lessons of Vietnam, he repeatedly writes that the United States should intervene militarily only with clear objectives, public support and an "exit strategy."
Powell also makes clear that he believes in building coalitions with other countries, from old friends, such as the nations of Western Europe, to new partners, such as post-communist Russia, or even old adversaries with common interests, such as Syria during the Gulf War.
While these views are well-known, My American Journey shows how Powell's emphasis on and aptitude for diplomacy flow from his life experience and are intrinsic to his view of the world. Powell has been a bridge-builder all his life. He was shaped by experiences that transcend his American identity. And, while a fervent patriot, he is also capable of seeing the United States through the eyes of the rest of the world -- a skill that is essential but uncommon among the nation's policymakers.
The son of Jamaican immigrants, Powell has an immediate affinity not only with the West Indies but also with other countries whose cultures were shaped by the British Empire. Raised in a multi-ethnic, working-class neighborhood in the South Bronx, he grew up among blacks, Hispanics and white ethnics of every origin and remains the street-smart New Yorker, always identifying his neighborhood, college and Army buddies by their ethnic origins.
A City College graduate who once worked in a soda-bottling plant, Powell reveals himself as a product not only of black America but also of blue-collar America. A far cry from patrician predecessors such as John Foster Dulles and Cyrus Vance, Powell remembers every promotion he ever received, the take-home pay for every job he ever held, the price for every house he ever bought, the make of every car he ever owned and the name of every union he or his parents ever joined. He also seemingly remembers the names of every mentor, every fraternity brother, and every Army buddy who died on the battlefield. In short, he's one member of the foreign-policy establishment whose experiences, values and vocabulary are not foreign to most Americans.
Powell's experiences and outlook prepare him to present the nation's policies not only to domestic audiences but also to foreign leaders and peoples. While his public persona is an easygoing man at ease in the world, Powell has spent much of his life as something of an outsider -- a West Indian among black Americans, a black man among white ethnics, a City College graduate in an Army dominated by West Pointers, a military man assigned to work with civilians in various stints during the 1970s and '80s, and an African-American in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and both Bushes.
His book implicitly makes the case and offers a handbook for conducting diplomacy in the best sense of the word -- not abandoning your own identity but understanding the world around you and explaining yourself effectively to others. Much of his memoir reveals his fascination with what he has learned about people, institutions, cultures, countries and even machines of all kinds, from cars to computers. Careful readers will learn about, among other subjects, calypso music, "the etiquette of Jamaican rum," the Anglican Church, Army folkways, the internal workings of the Pentagon and the White House, how to survive helicopter crashes and how to conduct a military briefing.
A close observer and careful listener, Powell seems to be able to bond with almost everyone, even identifying a Canadian visitor to his Army base as a fellow "descendant of ex-colonials." Revealingly, one of his few happy moments during two tours of duty in Vietnam came when he "crossed a cultural divide" with a South Vietnamese officer. This is a recurring theme in his career, from speaking Yiddish in Israel to singing doo-wop songs with black elected officials, Democrats all, on the plane to South African President Nelson Mandela's inauguration.
In many of his travels, Powell bonds with foreign leaders by talking "soldier to soldier" in difficult situations, from persuading Israeli deputy chief of staff Ehud Barak not to respond to Iraqi missile attacks during the Gulf War to persuading Haitian military strongman Raoul Cedras to step down in response to President Bill Clinton's demand for his resignation in 1994. While his military background and familiarity with British Commonwealth culture help him bond with many of the world's leaders, so does something that runs even deeper: the respect for established institutions that attracted him to the Anglican Church of his parents and the Army that became his career.
As My American Journey reveals, Powell has spent his life working his way through the American military and the civilian national security establishment -- an experience that resembles those of most world leaders but sets him apart from the individualistic elites who increasingly dominate American government and politics. As The Commanders portrays the Republican national security experts and as David Halberstam's War in a Time of Peace presents their Democratic counterparts, many are self-selected, self-directed meritocrats who attained prominence by performing well in college, honing their reputations in universities or think tanks, and attaching themselves to successful presidential candidates. Meeting with foreign leaders, they behave much as they do in this country's corridors of power: demonstrating their expertise or demolishing their rivals but rarely listening, learning, bonding and persuading.
Compared with national security officials whose experience tends more toward faculty lounges than foxholes, this soldier-diplomat may be less likely to recognize and respond to the trends transforming the world or threatening the nation. Indeed, My American Journey is less than prophetic in devoting only six references to terrorism, and there is room for debate about whether to contain or depose Saddam Hussein. Still, most readers of My American Journey will be grateful that the nation's chief diplomat is its former chief soldier: an authentic American hero who prefers to use his powers of persuasion before resorting to the persuasion of power.
David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute and the author of Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties.