April 29, 2003 | Op-ed

U.S. foreign policy an ideological struggle between Powell, Rumsfeld camps

By Philip Dine

WASHINGTON _ The outcome of a tug-of-war between the administration's two most powerful Cabinet members _ Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell _ will affect what America does in the world and how others view the United States.

Rumsfeld, ever aggressive, now hopes to seize on the rout of the Iraqi military by imposing America's will in the region and in other trouble spots, ultimately forcing adversaries to back down and making the world safer for U.S. interests.

Powell, mindful of the isolated status of the United States following its attack on Iraq, seeks to rebuild alliances with Europe, mend fences at the United Nations and re-involve other countries in the global war on terrorism.

“These are two genuinely different, and very strongly held, views on how the United States should behave in the world,” said Robert Einhorn, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies who served until August 2001 as assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation.

“I think what's happened is the substantive stakes are higher now. We're in the midst of the post-Saddam era, and we're in the midst of a nuclear crisis with North Korea. This is no longer theoretical. That's one reason why the divisions have become much more stark.”

The debate is about policy but its fervor stems from the personalities and philosophies of the protagonists.

“You have two very different geopolitical views and two very strong personalities, two men who are not only sure of themselves personally but are at the capstone of their careers,” said P.W. Singer, an former Pentagon official and now an expert in modern warfare at the Brookings Institution.

“They're also both secure in that they know they have a certain constituency and know it would be very difficult for President (George W.) Bush to choose between them and say it's either one or the other.”

Rumsfeld, 70, is used to running things. This is his second tour at the Pentagon _ he was the youngest defense secretary in history in the Ford administration, now he's the oldest _ and he has also managed other executive agencies.

At age 30 he was a congressman. He was later chief executive of two Fortune 500 companies. Once he makes a decision he likes to act. He divides the world into good and bad, he thinks American power is a force for good, and he thinks it should be used to root out the bad.

Making that approach possible is that fact that the Pentagon has more resources than the State Department, and less of a need to involve others, given U.S. military supremacy.

Powell, 66, from far humbler beginnings, rose gradually through the military ranks, by working well with others and by serving key leaders in sensitive posts.

As one of the few senior administration officials who has seen battle, Powell is cautious about going to war and views it as a last resort.

By inclination, and now by occupation, Powell sees nuances and favors diplomatic solutions where possible, however arduous the road may be.

Reinforcing those temperamental and institutional differences is a political divide, with Rumsfeld more hawkish on foreign issues than the moderate Powell.

On Iraq, Rumsfeld long regarded weapons inspections as a waste of time, while Powell used his influence to get Bush to seek the return of U.N. inspectors. Powell favors a more conciliatory approach to North Korea's nuclear threat than does Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld has defended Israel's seizure of Palestinian lands and says the U.S. ally must defend itself against terrorism. Powell speaks of Palestinian rights as well as Israel's security, and wants to involve Europe, Russia and the United Nations in a broad peace initiative.

Early in the administration, Rumsfeld began sending unsolicited memos to the State Department. One advised Powell not to maintain a dialogue with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, another cited concern that diplomats were trying to rehabilitate Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. State Department officials scoff privately at what they call the “Rummygrams.”

Now the gulf between the two departments _ and their leaders _ is growing as the United States faces mounting challenges. Washington's diplomats and warriors have had clashes in the past, but Singer said, “I don't think they've ever been so public, especially in times of national crisis.”


Last week, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an ally of Rumsfeld who advises the Pentagon as a member of its Defense Policy Board, lambasted the State Department.

Six months of diplomatic failure were followed by one month of military success in Iraq, Gingrich said. Now, he charged, State Department initiatives _ such as Powell's “ludicrous” plan to visit Syria to discuss its support for terrorism and possession of dangerous weapons _ threaten to undo the military win.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage responded, “It's clear that Mr. Gingrich is off his meds and out of therapy.”

Those who support Rumsfeld say he understands the urgency of the terrorist threat, and that he has faced up to problems at the Pentagon, improving the place through transformation.

“The world is such a different place after 9/11, and the State Department hasn't caught up,” said Danielle Pletka, who runs the foreign policy and defense section at the American Enterprise Institute and was the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's top staff member on the Middle East.

“Iraq is one of the first real tests of a new vision of the threat to the United States and of a new Middle East, and it's one that was resisted very strongly by the State Department,” Pletka said. She said the agency has a “go along to get along attitude” that no longer serves the national security.

Powell should be willing to examine the country's diplomacy, said Clifford May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

“My view is that the military learns from its mistakes and is always trying to do better in the next battle,” May said. “I don't think you see the same thing at the State Department, which seems unwaveringly committed to the policies of the past.”

Powell's supporters say he considers the global impact of using American might. They argue that Rumsfeld is impulsive and creates unnecessary problems with other countries, including allies, by such remarks as referring to those who opposed a war with Iraq as “old Europe.”

Singer said that with military victory in Iraq, “you see an increased swagger coming out of the Pentagon. We were right and therefore we should have a broader mandate.”

“The whole dust-up with Syria, the negotiations with North Korea, you're basically seeing an effort by them to broaden the scope of issues the Pentagon has authority over to include diplomatic matters,” he said.

That would be a mistake, Singer said, because while Powell believes in strengthening alliances to promote national security, Rumsfeld and his top aides “see international institutions not only as a nuisance but also as a threat.”

Respect for Powell overseas makes him a key resource, said retired Maj. Gen. William Nash, the first commander of U.S. forces in Bosnia and a veteran of the Gulf and Vietnam wars.

“He brings so much to the table in experience and stature that for anybody to cause an open breach is making a serious mistake,” Nash said. “I cannot fathom the utility of an attack on Colin Powell by members of the administration or those close to them. I find it singularly unhelpful to the nation.”


Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the debate reflects a president who seeks competing opinions.

“It is a sign of a very healthy administration, open minded to very different kinds of perspectives and opinions,” Akin said. “I think that's a sign of a leader who doesn't want to surround himself with all yes men, wants people to have opinions.”

Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., ranking member on the armed services panel, said he's unsure where the dispute is heading or how the White House figures in.

“It boils down to the president's the captain of the ship,” Skelton said. “He is either allowing this discussion to go on, or he is not paying attention to it. The president has to take the reins and decide where we're going militarily as well as diplomatically, and those two should mesh.”

Tim Lomperis, chairman of St. Louis University's political science department and a former military intelligence officer in Vietnam, says such a spat is risky when the country faces the unpredictable challenges of regional crises and the global war against terrorism.

“We are shooting down pretty dangerous rapids here and it's going to be tough enough to keep the raft afloat,” Lomperis said, “let alone if there are two people trying to hold onto the rudder and steer it in different ways. It is imperative that the United States, within itself, quickly develop a single-minded approach.”