Remembering Colin Powell
Colin Powell, who died today, epitomized the best of America. He was in many ways a larger-than-life figure: White House national security advisor at the age of 49, four-star general, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and finally secretary of state. Those who had the good fortune to work with and for him learned that his professional success was rooted in his admirable qualities as a person. He was smart, inquisitive and open to new ideas, worked hard, expected the best of others and gave them his trust and support in return. He was, in short, a good man.
I met Powell for the first time as he was preparing for his hearings to be secretary of state. He had arrived for his first visit as secretary-designate by driving himself and parking in front of the department. At the time, I was the acting assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES). OES did important work, but its issues, such as climate change, biodiversity, and promoting sustainable global fisheries, did not often require or attract the secretary’s attention. Nonetheless, Powell wanted to be briefed on what OES was doing, so a few days after his initial arrival a small group of colleagues and I spent an hour or so giving him the policy highlights of OES’s work. We singled out climate change as the most significant issue for the present and the future, reviewed the status of Kyoto Protocol follow up, and recommended that the new Bush administration keep working with a group of like-minded nations to negotiate changes to Kyoto that met U.S. concerns.
Powell did not know much about climate change, but he was interested and asked a lot of questions. I told him climate change was not just a scientific/environmental issue, it was also political issue for many nations and how the Bush administration dealt with it would have consequences for U.S. relations with other countries and their publics. That struck a chord with him, and he probed our group to learn more about why we thought climate change was more than a technical issue. He seemed satisfied by our responses and told us to provide our climate change briefings to others on his team and the new cabinet.
Shortly after he was confirmed, Secretary Powell held his first formal staff meeting. The vast majority of people at the meeting were senior career staff filling jobs of political appointees not yet confirmed by the Senate. In essence, Secretary Powell was meeting with holdovers from the last administration. He made it clear to everyone in the room that he looked to them for advice and guidance, but that he expected them to act on his direction. As he went around the table, the staff raised issues or asked for guidance, brief discussions ensued, and Powell gave clear direction. The meeting was brisk, but all participants had a chance to both see the new secretary in action and engage with him on their issues.
Powell’s respect for and trust in the professionalism of the State Department’s career staff had a profound effect. Many of us had been through earlier transitions characterized by mistrust of and/or hostility to the State Department’s career staff by incoming administrations. There was none of that with Powell and his team.
I left Powell’s staff meeting to chair my own OES staff meeting. I opened my meeting by saying we had met the secretary’s new team at his staff meeting — and then I paused for a moment. During the pause, the OES staff leaned forward eager to hear about the new team. I then looked around the room and said we are Secretary Powell’s new team; he is counting on us to do our jobs and to let him know when we need his help or direction. The OES staff left the meeting energized and ready to work hard for the new secretary of state.
A couple of months later, I had a chance to see Secretary Powell demonstrate his integrity and courage. As he had suggested, OES worked with others to brief key cabinet figures on climate change. A group of us, for example, had briefed Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who as a private sector executive had been outspoken on the need to address climate change. To speed things up — and working with White House staff and others — a briefing for the cabinet was arranged, with a variety of government experts briefing on the science; I briefed on the foreign policy aspects of the issue. Word was already spreading that Vice President Cheney’s office was seeking to have the administration walk away from the Kyoto Protocol, so my last comment to the cabinet group was to note the political aspects of the issue and to urge that we keeping negotiating on Kyoto and sustain our negotiating group of close allies, who wanted to address climate change, not ignore it. I then asked if there were any questions. Secretary O’Neill and others looked at their notes, their shoes, or into space, but no one said a word.
Secretary Powell looked around the room, let the silence build for a minute or so, seemed to smile to himself, and then began to ask questions designed to allow the briefers to reinforce points they had made in their presentations. This went on for some ten minutes, with Powell the only cabinet member to engage the briefers, after which the meeting ended.
Secretary Powell stuck his neck out politically in that meeting because he trusted in the professionalism and dedication to U.S. interests of the career experts and the one career diplomat who had briefed him and his cabinet colleagues. As it turned out, Powell was right to trust his professional colleagues, and Cheney was wrong to ignore or downplay climate change.
Colin Powell was both a great and a good man. We need more people like him in public life today. All who were lucky enough to know or work with him will mourn his death.
Kenneth C. Brill is a retired career Foreign Service Officer who served as an ambassador in the Clinton and Bush Administrations and was the founding Director of the U.S. National Counterproliferation Center within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.