Despite the near unanimous support among the chattering classes for Colin Powell, conservatives should nonetheless embrace him for secretary of state. Not only did he say all of the right things implementing strategic missile defense, building the U.S. military and combating terrorism but he has just what it takes to reverse the No. 1 problem of the Clinton years, its mindless worldwide interventionism.
His proposed review of U.S. overseas troop commitments, after years of rash decisions by Madeleine K. Albright and her team, is the critical item. Some 6,000 U.S. military personnel remain in Kosovo and 4,200 in Bosnia, apparently forever. Plus there was the nation-building in Somalia and Haiti, and more than 60 other uses of the military, compared to only 20 under President George H.W. Bush. Mr. Powell brings sound military judgment to these myriad commitments. Even persistent critics, like “national greatness” advocate Robert Kagan, admit Mr. Powell is “pretty sound” when it comes to carrying out military missions. What they criticize is that he is insufficiently ready to send U.S. troops abroad. Mrs. Albright famously remarked she could not understand what was the use of Mr. Powell having so much military might when he was so unwilling to use it. But the former chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, like all soldiers, knows the true horror of war and that young men and women pay the price of politicians seeking glory and other psychic fulfillment.
Military judgment is necessary because, being human, political leaders are often moved by emotion to undertake military action when true national interests are not at stake. In the early 20th century, a series of ill-considered moves by many decent people in many countries, including such real leaders as a too-young Winston Churchill, fumbled the world into what is now recognized by most as the “unnecessary world war” with its millions of casualties. Without people of sound judgment, there is a Mrs. Albright pushing U.S. troops into unnecessary commitments. Her State Department reported on April 19, 1999, that 100,000 Kosovar Albanians were missing and feared killed, and the defense secretary repeated the figure on May 16. Today, the best figure is 9,269 killed still too many but only a tenth of the estimate that was used to manipulate U.S. support for war against Yugoslavia. A Wall Street Journal source claimed the higher estimated resulted from an ethnic Albanian “disinformation campaign.”
The major complaint by Mr. Kagan and his allies is that Mr. Powell was irresolute about the Persian Gulf war. The military leader counseled against using U.S. forces except to protect Saudi Arabia and was opposed to invading Baghdad and ousting Saddam Hussein from power. President Bush expanded the mission to Kuwait and Iraq itself but supported Mr. Powell’s more limited military mission. The general doubted the U.S. public would support the larger mission and feared an overcommitment such as he experienced in Vietnam. The fact that Mr. Bush limited the mission allayed many of his fears and allowed him to lead the engagement. But it is this very limitation that has so distressed his critics. Yes, it is annoying to constantly spar with Saddam, but Mr. Bush and Mr. Powell were right not to fight to the end. If the Iraqi military were destroyed outright, there would have been a dangerous vacuum to be filled either by the much, much larger and much more dangerous Iran or by another indefinite U.S. commitment of troops, one that would dwarf the Bosnia and Kosovo operations and would last just as long.
President-elect George W. Bush promised to review U.S. military commitments abroad like Bosnia and Kosovo during the campaign. In announcing Mr. Powell, both reiterated this guarantee. “We’re not cutting and running,” Mr. Powell said. “We’re going to take a careful reassessment.” He also promised that the United States would “remain engaged” and consult with allies, also stressing that we would be a “friend to all sides.” But he emphasized, “Our armed forces are stretched rather thin, and there is a limit to how many of these deployments we can sustain.”
Many conservatives will be cautious about Mr. Powell on social issues. There are important abortion and population issues within the State Department’s ambit, especially through U.N. and international assembly policies. The secretary-designate would be wise to appoint assistants in agreement with his new boss’ policies to the appropriate positions, but it is unlikely the former general would overrule his commander in any event. Mr. Powell’s continuing support of America’s Promise,” his voluntary effort to teach young people that with hard work and education they can succeed, should appeal to conservatives, too. But the essence of the job is to bring judgment when exposing U.S. troops to deadly fire. In this, history says he is the right” man for the job.
Donald Devine, former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is a columnist and a Washington-based policy consultant.