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The Arrogance of Powell?




February 7, 2001

LONDON - In the original draft of his best selling autobiography the new U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, wrote, "I believe in the bully's way of going to war…I'm on the street corner, I got my gun, I got my blade, I'ma kick you' ass". In the end Powell deleted the line, deciding "it sounded a little, shall we say, ethnic and a little too Bronx". At the moment attention is focused on the other side of Powell's character- his aversion to intervention overseas.

This, indeed, is a man who draws lines where others fear to tread- who was prepared to argue to his then boss, president George Bush senior, that the U.S. should not go to war against Iraq to reverse the conquest of neighbouring Kuwait. And who, later in the conflict, exploded right in the face of his immediate superior, Secretary of Defence Dick Cheney, when Cheney intimated that the U.S. should be prepared to use nuclear weapons in the war against Saddam Hussein that America and its allies eventually launched.

Yes, bold and outspoken though the man is, is he prepared to work to put the machinery of imperialism and war making that is the lot of an unopposed superpower out of order? I do not think so. President Bill Clinton bequeathed three important policy juggernauts, which now go at such a speed that Powell, even if he were willing, would find it all but impossible to derail. The first was Clinton's decision to increase defence spending, even though the U.S. already outspends all its allies added together and outspends Russia by a factor of twenty. The second was Clinton's policy of "democratic enlargement" which was, in effect, a Brezhnev Doctrine in reverse: states that are authoritarian may become democratic, but democracies will not be allowed to slip back. This led to the expansion of Nato eastward, involving a rigorous and expensive military commitment to all of Europe, east and west. And it was complemented by Clinton's third innovation: an apparent desire to outmanoeuvre Russia in the oil-rich Caspian basin, an area that until recently was part and parcel of the Soviet Union and which today remains an economic lifeline for Russia. By the end of the Clinton era, Russia felt half encircled.

For Powell a man who, from what we know of him, seems determined to avoid belligerency and to push the cause of disarmament, it will be extraordinarily difficult to rein in the sheer momentum that is built into the life style of any great power, and in the almost unique era of a lone superpower is all but unstoppable.

Nothing illustrates the American superpower malady more than its fixation with anti-missile defence. The new Administration seems determined to pursue the chimera of perfect defence (against whom it has not made clear) at the cost of destroying long standing understandings, confidence building and, not least, a solemn international treaty- the net effect of which, quite counterproductively, will be to make America confront more antagonism and animosity that it would if it simply accepted the status quo. No wonder its European allies are determined to reverse this policy. But all this does is seemingly antagonise Washington to the point where it is now petulantly but angrily denouncing Europe's intention to build its own unified defence forces, partially independent of Nato.

"The prime threat to the security of modern great powers is …themselves. Their greatest menace lies in their own tendency to exaggerate the dangers they face and to respond with counterproductive belligerence." This was the astute conclusion of Stephen Van Evera of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in his recent monumental book "Causes of War". America seems intent on repeating the mistakes made by the great powers of Europe since medieval times which, believing that security was scarce, initiated policies that became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Modern great powers have been overrun by unprovoked aggressors only twice, but they have been overrun by provoked aggressors six times, who have responded to the victim's fantasy-driven defensive bellicosity. Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Napoleonic France and Austria-Hungary were all destroyed by dangers that they themselves provoked with their efforts to escape from exaggerated or imaginary threats to their safety.This is a slippery slope that this Administration is already well down thanks to its inheritance from Clinton and, judging from Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld's comments in Munich last week-end, it is determined to keep sliding downwards. Powell is the only one in the new Administration who has both the perception and the authority to start to challenge it. But it is not yet clear if he wants to, or if he does whether it would cut any ice with President George Bush. It would be a fight for the soul and sense of America.


I can be reached by phone +3775 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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