As President-elect George W. Bush’s designated secretary of state, Colin Powell could face a world of foreign policy-related challenges as soon as his appointment is confirmed.
Many involve tensions between Bush’s campaign promises, pressures from leading Republicans in Congress, opposition from Democrats, and the need to balance the United States’ many and sometimes conflicting interests abroad.
With Bush lacking diplomatic experience, Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and adviser to three American presidents, seems certain to play the lead role in formulating U.S. foreign policy.
Here are some of the pressing issues Powell will face:
The question of whether to begin building a national missile defense system is one that could cause friction not just with Republicans and Democrats in Congress, but also with Russia, China and some of America’s closest allies.
Russia and China have been adamantly opposed to the proposed system, saying it would dilute the deterrent effect of their nuclear arsenals. Russian leaders have warned the system currently planned could scuttle much-needed arms control cooperation with the United States. Beijing warns it would build more missiles if the system is implemented.
Many of America’s closest allies also oppose building the system, which would require termination of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty between the Soviet Union (now Russia) and the United States. Powell could find himself expending a good deal of political capital to keep relations good with Russia and China and to win allied support of the program.
Bush has said if the United States couldn’t convince Russia to amend the ABM Treaty, then he was prepared to cancel it.
The issue could well confront Powell right after the new administration begins. Bush has vowed to build the system and the Pentagon says it needs to start some construction in Alaska this spring to meet a goal of having the system ready by 2005, at which time North Korea may have the capability to strike the United States with a ballistic missile.
President Clinton delayed the construction decision this year after two of three tests of the system failed to knock a mock warhead out of the sky.
Critics of the program, including many Democrats, have argued construction should only begin after tests have proved the system will actually work. The previous botched tests a doubts about the technology have prompted some scientists to say the estimated $30 billion system will never work.
Saddam Hussein could become a major headache for the Bush administration.
Powell also must consider what to do about the 8-year-old economic sanctions against Iraq, which have failed to compel the country’s leadership to allow confirmation it has given up its weapons of mass destruction.
Russia, France and some states in the Middle East have been clamoring for the sanctions to be relaxed or lifted, and for the United States and Britain to discontinue their occasional, retaliatory bombing while maintaining “no-fly zones” over northern and southern Iraq.
The Clinton administration has been criticized in the press because the sanctions and the bombings have not removed Saddam from power or compelled him to allow U.N. inspections of suspected weapons.
Saddam also has been able to earn money by smuggling oil while the general economy and quality of life in Iraq deteriorates. The United States says he has been robbing his people of food, medical and other aid provided by other countries.
When Powell accepted the nomination as secretary of state, he expressed new confidence in the potential effectiveness of sanctions.
“I think it is possible to re-energize those sanctions, and to continue to contain him, and then confront him should that become necessary again,” he said. “And I will make the case in every opportunity I get that we”re not doing this to hurt the Iraqi people,” he said.
As chairman of the Joint Chiefs during the Gulf War, Powell played a key role in orchestrating the U.S. operations to drive the Iraqi forces out of Kuwait and compel them to surrender.
Bush has said he would not ease sanctions or negotiate, would aid opposition groups, and would support military action to combat a threat of weapons of mass destruction.
Keeping Peace in the Balkans
The Bush administration will likely face the question: At what point should American troops come home from Bosnia and Kosovo?
During the campaign, Bush criticized the Clinton administration’s use of troops for “peacekeeping” and “nation-building” missions and said he favored pulling U.S. troops out of the Balkans.
In his second debate with Vice President Al Gore in October, Bush said he would “very much like to get our troops out” of the Balkans and would work with the European allies “to convince them to put troops on the ground.”
The idea of Americans pulling out of the Balkans has alarmed the European allies who, in fact, shoulder most of the burden in the region and rely on the Americans for symbolic importance, as well as their significant material contribution.
Powell has said he would talk with the allies before any such move was made. “We’re not cutting and running,” he told a reporter. “We’re going to make a careful assessment of it in consultation with our allies, and then make some judgments after that assessment is completed.”
Powell is known as an opponent of the use of American military force, except in limited circumstances. When force is used, Powell, a veteran of the protracted Vietnam conflict, thinks it should be overwhelming and quick.
The Middle East
Will the retired general try to play the strong, often-frustrating peacemaking role between the Israelis and Palestinians attempted by the Clinton administration?
Right after Bush takes office, Israel will be holding special elections. The violence between Israeli forces and Palestinian demonstrators shows no sign of abating and the man who has been the main negotiator for the United States, Dennis Ross, is leaving.
From the outset, Powell will be in crisis mode on this issue. If the peace talks cannot be revived under Bush, U.S. relations with a number of Arab governments sympathetic to the Palestinians could sour.
The administration may also consider whether to continue to contain Iran or to reach out to it. President Mohammad Khatami appears open to some kind of rapprochement with the United States. But he struggles for power with hard-line Islamists and the government is believed to be developing both weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them.
What to Do With China?
Republicans for years have criticized the Clinton administration policy of “engaging” China, arguing too many carrots and not enough sticks were used.
But the Bush administration could risk harming economic and arms control cooperation with China by pressing forward with a national missile defense, arming Taiwan with more advanced weapons, and more strongly criticizing or perhaps punishing Beijing for its human rights, arms proliferation and Taiwan policies.
The next White House will face firm pressure this spring from lobbyists and congressional Republicans who want the United States to sell Taiwan more advanced weaponry, such as Aegis destroyers and diesel submarines. Such deals were rejected this year by the Clinton administration. A decision on a package of weapons is usually made each April.
Sales of such weaponry, urged by many congressional Republicans as a counter to China’s growing military might, could possibly provoke Chinese aggression toward Taiwan, as Beijing has threatened.
Bush has said the United States should help Taiwan defend itself in the event of a Chinese invasion, but has not been specific about what equipment he would allow.
U.S. companies argue China is an important market for them. But congressional Republicans may pressure the Bush administration to prevent U.S. companies from selling China supercomputers and advanced machine tools and from buying Chinese satellite-launching services, because of national security concerns.
Congress may also urge the new administration to punish Russia more severely for proliferating military equipment and technology to Iran.
The Bush administration will also come in at a time when the United States is getting increasingly involved in the conflicts between the Colombian military and rebel guerillas and narco-producers and -traffickers. Concerns have been raised that America could be drawn in to Colombia’s conflict, like it was into the Vietnam War.
The United States for months has been providing new military equipment, training and better intelligence tools to help Colombian military forces better combat the drug traffickers. And two U.S.-trained Colombian battalions reportedly are preparing the in coming weeks to launch an offensive.
Bush said during the campaign he generally supports the $1.6 billion initiative, which also found bipartisan support in Congress last summer. But if the offensive fails, the administration may need to reconsider the strategy, perhaps committing more American military aid or reducing it.
Many of the U.S. officials closely involved in the policy have announced their intention of leaving government, including Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering and the White House drug policy chief, Barry R. McCaffrey. And none of Bush’s current top advisers has significant Latin American or anti-drug experience.
State Department Security
The State Department has been plagued by security problems in recent years. It was discovered last year that a Russian spy had placed a bug in a supposedly secure conference room in the main building. And a laptop computer containing classified information disappeared and apparently was never recovered.
Since the incidents, the press has been permitted more limited access to department officials.
With Powell in charge, the rules could become stricter.