Colin Powell’s Final Mission

Secretary of State Colin Powell, pressed into service in his final days in office to console victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami, is the Bush administration’s benign face to a skeptical world.

His designated successor Condoleezza Rice, whose demeanor is more cool and formal than the charming Powell, faces a tough challenge in filling his shoes, especially in such sensitive tasks as showing American compassion in the face of tragedy.

But Rice has a major asset the retired general and veteran Washington player does not — the political clout derived from close ties with President Bush solidified during her four years as his national security adviser.

Powell was the only top member of Bush’s national security team not invited to stay for a second term, beginning Jan. 20.

Despite his protestations, many in Washington believe Powell was effectively fired. Republican hard-liners felt he too often undercut Bush orthodoxy.

Yet it was to Powell that Bush turned when the initially slow and meager American response to the tsunami that has now claimed more than 150,000 victims fanned its own wave of U.S.-directed criticism.

Powell is touring the devastation caused by the Dec. 26 tsunami and will represent Washington at an emergency international summit on the tragedy in Jakarta on Thursday. Washington has pledged $350 million, dozens of naval ships and helicopters and more than 12,000 troops to recovery efforts.

Secretaries of state are traditionally America’s lead emissaries to the world. Powell has been an especially reassuring interlocutor for an international community often suspicious or angered over U.S. policies on issues from Iraq and North Korea to climate change.


At Bush’s request, Powell went before the United Nations to make the case for war against Saddam Hussein on the grounds that the Iraqi leader had weapons of mass destruction. His credibility was severely damaged when no weapons were found.

Still, Powell “clearly is the best foot forward for this administration overseas,” said James Lindsay, vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations who worked on former President Bill Clinton’s National security Council staff.

But Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution said he was “struck by the fact that the public face of this administration at this time is represented by the one person who’s not going to be represented in the second term.”

If the administration really wanted to make a statement, Bush himself or Vice President Dick Cheney could have attended the aid summit or Rice could have accompanied Powell, or headed the Asian mission herself, he said.

“Rice represents the future of this administration” yet she has not been publicly associated with the U.S. relief effort, Daalder, also a former Clinton aide, added.

A senior White House official rejected such criticism, saying Bush “is the face of this government.” Rice, meanwhile, is preparing for U.S. Senate confirmation hearings later this month and as national security adviser, she “doesn’t fly around to disaster areas,” he added.

She’ll soon have that as part of her job description as she makes what her former boss, retired Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to Bush’s father, called the “tough transition” to secretary of state.

“Working at the White House, the focus is on policy-making and policy coordination … In the State Department, you continue the policy-making, but you have this huge additional burden of being spokesman for the United States,” he said in an interview on the Council on Foreign Relations Web site.

“That’s not just being a high-level press spokesman. That’s reaching out, explaining ourselves to other peoples, getting them to not only listen to us, but understand and, hopefully, support what we are doing,” Scowcroft added.

(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan)

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