Colin Powell has won his campaign to reform management at the State Department. Does it matter?
On Jan. 22, 2001, Colin Powell assumed command of an army in tatters. That cold Monday morning, his first day on the job as secretary of State, the celebrated former general strode into headquarters in Washington. A crowd of employees gathered to welcome him. Powell stood in front of a plaque honoring American diplomats killed in the line of duty. And as he exchanged pleasantries, Powell said something most of the onlookers probably hadn’t heard in their entire careers. “I am not coming in just to be the foreign policy adviser to the president,” Powell said. “I’m coming in as the leader and manager of this department.”
The department had few friends. The Congress members who controlled its budget criticized State’s leaders as aloof and arrogant and held the foreign affairs budget to levels most in the department believed to be untenably low. In the past few years, diplomats had come under physical attack during the simultaneous bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in August 1998
By the time Powell arrived, morale had deteriorated. On his fourth day as secretary, he addressed an assembly of employees, many dispirited by the 11 independent reports written over the preceding three years enumerating State’s weaknesses. Powell delivered a rallying cry, urging his troops into the breach. Like Shakespeare’s King Henry V, the famed and charismatic Powell had come not just to buoy the soldiers for battle, but to show them what he was made of. He made them a promise: “I view it as my solemn obligation to make sure that you have all the resources you need to serve the American people,” he said. “We’re going to start doing things right away.”
Powell wasn’t planning a revolution. He believed radical reforms would take more energy than the limping department could muster. Instead, Powell launched a systematic campaign attacking the department’s problems on several fronts. He sought to:
Improve relationships with important congressional staffers whose bosses control State’s purse strings.
- Outfit diplomatic posts with the tools of the Information Age.
- Hire more Foreign Service officers, specialists and civil servants to fill the gaps created by retirements.
- Create new courses in management and leadership, and make such training a steppingstone to promotion for career employees.
- Shore up embassy security.
Powell pledged to fight battles too long unwaged. “I hope, as a result of that, that a new culture will emerge,” he said. Powell sought evolution through tangible, manageable steps, and hoped his reforms ultimately would improve the department’s execution of foreign policy. “I am only interested in transformations that go down to the depth of the organization,” he said.
The administrative tangles of “the Building,” as State’s Washington headquarters is known, were so daunting that two decades of secretaries had avoided them. Not since George Shultz, who in the early 1980s paid genuine attention to management, had any secretary concerned himself or herself with nuts-and-bolts operations. Instead, each opted to play full-time the role of president’s foreign policy consigliore, and highest-ranking member of the Cabinet.
Powell hammered out his plan to reverse that neglect in daily meetings with his management team. “It’s the philosophy I used as a soldier,” he says now, almost three years later. “You make clear what you’re trying to accomplish, you make clear the mission, you go get the resources needed for that mission, you take care of the people who are entrusted to your care, because they are the ones who are going to accomplish the mission, you do everything you can to empower them to get it done.”
Nearing the end of President Bush’s term, Powell is, by all accounts, adored by department employees. An assessment of his first two years by the Foreign Affairs Council, a consortium of 11 organizations of career and politically appointed State employees and foreign policy experts, said Powell had fulfilled his promises to institute ground-level reforms, and summed up his term as “historic.”
But does it matter? Eight months into the occupation of Iraq, and two years after the invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. foreign policy is denounced abroad. America’s oldest allies and the United Nations have renounced the Bush doctrine of military preemption. The administration’s Middle East road map to peace is crumbling. There’s little evidence that efforts to win hearts and minds in the Middle East are bearing fruit. Iraq’s reconstruction has been beset with problems.
For some time it appeared that the Pentagon had displaced the State Department in leading the rebuilding of post-war Iraq. Only recently has State begun to play a more prominent role. In early October, the White House tapped National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to oversee reconstruction efforts from Washington, signaling that the administration felt the project was veering off track. State immediately committed to double its representation in Baghdad.
Powell’s leadership of the department has come under attack by a prominent member of his own party. In a July essay for Foreign Policy magazine, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called for a revolutionary overhaul of State akin to what Donald Rumsfeld is implementing at the Defense Department – the very kind of change Powell eschewed.
In “Rogue State Department,” Gingrich skewered the step-by-step reform strategy Powell has been implementing, writing that it wasn’t drastic enough. He questioned whether the department really was unable to withstand a top-to-bottom shakeup, and concluded, “The State Department is far too busy being ineffective to bother fixing its internal structures in order to become more effective.”
Gingrich also assailed the department as a fifth column, undermining President Bush’s assertive foreign policy. “In Washington today, two worldviews on U.S. foreign policy are colliding,” Gingrich wrote. “One view emphasizes facts, values and consequences. The other believes in process, politeness and accommodation. . . .The State Department (as an institution) and the Foreign Service (as a culture) clearly favor” the latter view.
Gingrich accused diplomats of a “deliberate and systematic effort” to undermine President Bush’s foreign policy, particularly by leaking to the news media a report that was skeptical of liberal democracy’s chances in Iraq. And Gingrich blasted the department for a “failure to communicate” U.S. policies and messages abroad, fingering the department for failing to curb growing anti-Americanism.
Gingrich’s critique was strongly rebuked by foreign policy experts from both parties. Nevertheless, it raised the question of what State’s role should be in crafting foreign policy. Powell has chosen to fight internal battles he can win, and has racked up impressive victories. Yet, within the Bush administration, his power appears contested, if not diminished. In the face of criticism, Powell tends to emphasize technical successes: “The President has eliminated the Taliban in Afghanistan, eliminated Saddam Hussein in Baghdad,” he says. But, characteristically straightforward, he acknowledges, “We still have a lot of challenges in front of us.”
TAKING THE HILL
For Powell the incrementalist, building foreign policy success has meant constructing a foundation of administrative achievements. Like any campaign, Powell’s couldn’t begin without significant financial investment – something State historically has found difficult to win. State Department employees were notorious for their cantankerous relations with the committee members and staffers who set the department’s budget.
“Shortly after I got here,” Powell says, “in one of my staff meetings, I said to my assistant secretaries, ‘How many of you are reluctant to go up to Capitol Hill and deal with members of Congress on a particular issue?’ Quite a few hands went up. And those that didn’t raise their hands had nervous looks on their faces.”
A widely circulated study commissioned by the Una Chapman Cox Foundation, a Foreign Service advocacy group, surveyed 25 key congressional staffers, revealing “an enduring perception of the Foreign Service as ‘arrogant’ and insufficiently responsive to the legislature.” The result: State couldn’t “mobilize support for important policy and budgetary issues.” The study was completed in October 2002, but State’s bad image had persisted for years. Congressional staffers complained that State’s policy experts didn’t respond promptly to their requests for briefings. The experts, in turn, complained that legislative assistants wanted synopsized versions of nuanced issues that the department had spent years studying.
Powell had no patience for any of it. Early on, he told his employees: “I want to make sure that . . . when some committee calls you, you say, ‘I’ll be right there,’ not ‘I can’t do it, I’m rearranging my sock drawer.'” Powell’s admonition wasn’t so much an order as an aspiration. He hoped that with time and familiarity with his priorities and approach, his aides would learn the value of heading to the Hill.
Powell’s strategy appears to have succeeded. After years of reductions in the budget for administering foreign affairs, which fell from $5 billion in 1994 to $3.6 billion in 2000, Congress approved $5.5 billion for fiscal 2002. Lawmakers also increased the fiscal 2003 budget so State could invest more money in information technology, hiring and embassy security. The Cox report also showed that about one-third of congressional staffers interviewed were aware that Powell had made getting on their good side a management priority. “I could not have better support or relations from and with Congress,” Powell asserts now. “And I think it pays off.”
Powell’s victories in administrative areas might appear mundane, but he maintains they were epochal. So far, Powell’s campaign has captured ground on every front:
PersonnelFrom 1994 to 1997, State hired only enough people to replace half the number it lost to retirement, resignation or death. Various reports concluded the personnel shortfalls jeopardized the department’s ability to execute foreign policy. To correct this, Powell implemented the Diplomatic Readiness Initiative, which sought to add, by 2004, 1,150 employees in addition to those hired to offset attrition. In fiscal 2002, State hired 1,780 new Foreign Service and civil service employees, nearly 60 percent more than the previous year, and now has met the readiness goal.
Training To his displeasure, Powell discovered that many career officials had little to no management or leadership training, says Ambassador Katherine Peterson, the director of the Foreign Service Institute, State’s training arm. Senior staff had taken only a two-week seminar that focused mainly on administrative issues. “This is ridiculous,” Peterson recalls Powell saying. Employees were thrust into managerial positions with no formal preparation. Powell thought leadership courses would benefit everyone. Even Foreign Service officers who weren’t managers might lead a staff at an embassy. Now, those officers must take at least six weeks of management and leadership training. Courses focus on team building, but also contain crisis simulations that teach how to respond, for example, to an airplane crash or a coup d’etat. After 2006, such courses will be a prerequisite for promotion.
Information Technology In 2001, only 2 percent of State Department computers were connected to the Internet. A 2001 report by a task force headed by former Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci found that 92 percent of overseas posts had “obsolete classified networks, some of which have no classified connectivity with the rest of the U.S. government.” Powell, who checks his own e-mail every day, made technology upgrades another pillar in his reform plan. By January 2003, 81 percent of all desktop computers were connected to the Internet. Today, 100 percent of the computers are connected, Powell says, and every post is connected to the department’s classified information network.”I want to get information out to every mission in the department instantaneously – not [in] 12 hours, 18 hours . . . instantaneously,” Powell says.
Overseas Security In 1998, at the time of the Africa embassy bombings, 90 percent of U.S. embassies didn’t comply with State’s established building security standards. Powell secured $1.3 billion in fiscal 2002 and fiscal 2003 for security upgrades. President Bush’s fiscal 2004 budget calls for another $1.5 billion. Powell also successfully resisted efforts to privatize the office that deals with embassy security and appointed a new director. By cutting construction costs and time, the Foreign Affairs Council noted in its report, the office “has increased confidence on Capital Hill that monies appropriated for embassy security will be well spent.”
All these achievements are in line with Powell’s overarching management philosophy: Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Pointing to his technology reforms, Powell says, “We proved to people that we would do what we said we would do.” When employees “see that we are working hard to get them the tools they need to be a 21st century organization, they start acting like a 21st century organization, because they can. And when they see that the leadership of the department is concerned about their facilities, or . . . the way in which we improve our training systems . . . it shows in the department.” The result, says Powell, is “better foreign policy.”
Powell’s attention to small victories borders on fanatical. In August, State won the federal interagency softball championship, he notes. Earlier, “we got recognized for having the best cafeteria facility. These are all little bitty things, and no one of them means a lot. But when you start piling them up, it generates a change of attitude within an organization and people start saying, ‘We’re proud to be a part of this organization, and we will now take our performance to a higher level.'”
It will take time to judge whether improved performance yields foreign policy victories. But it definitely plays an important role in Powell’s effort to change the State Department’s public profile and alter perceptions of U.S. policy.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks affirmed for Powell and his lieutenants America’s need to go on the offensive, to positively portray its image, particularly in the Middle East. To that end, State has funded a number of initiatives, including a television advertising campaign that showed Muslims prospering in the United States; an Arabic teen magazine; an Arabic pop radio station with news produced by the U.S. government; and the new Middle East Television Network, a 24-hour satellite channel showing news and American programs. All these initiatives fall under the broad umbrella of “public diplomacy,” the attempt to influence foreign attitudes toward America and its policies.
The image campaign complements Powell’s reform agenda. Before 2001, Foreign Service officers received only three weeks of training in public diplomacy. Today, 19 weeks of courses are offered through the Foreign Service Institute. Cultural affairs officers, who mount English literacy campaigns or bring U.S. artists to foreign countries, get eight weeks of intensive training in how to be public emissaries in the countries where they serve. Press officers also train for two months on how to handle foreign talk show appearances and navigate ambushes by aggressive reporters.
Powell believes that leaders represent their organizations. They should know the minds of their bosses well enough to serve as State’s public face. For Powell, being a high-performance organization is intrinsically linked to being a high-profile one. “I want our ambassadors to spend more time on local television,” he says. “I want all of my people to get on television, go give speeches and to be accessible to the press.”
Powell is a media darling. As the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he rocketed to celebrity status during the 1991 Gulf War as a fixture of televised briefings. He built his image in the public eye. Whenever Powell hosts foreign visitors in Washington, he takes them to face a gathering of reporters outside the headquarters building. “I take the visitor out so that I can get on television and so that the visitor can get on television. . . . I want [State employees] to follow the example we’re trying to set.” For the Foreign Service, which traditionally has been an intermediary between heads of state, that public style marks a fundamental change. And Powell says, “I want it to be changing.”
But what’s to be done with diplomats who don’t want to become managers, much less talking heads? The Foreign Service attracts adventure-seeking globetrotters and would-be academics who want to steep in a particular region or culture. “There’s no doubt there are people like that,” says Grant Green, Powell’s undersecretary for management. “I would hope that most would aspire to become members of the Senior Foreign Service.” But, he acknowledges, not everyone will reach that level, “any more than not everybody is going to be a brigade commander or division commander in the military. . . . Whatever level they seek is fine. I don’t think we discourage that.”
As the Foreign Service evolves, interest in career diplomacy is growing. Enrollments for the Foreign Service exam surged after the Sept. 11 attacks. Today, the department is hiring 550 Foreign Service officers a year. In the early and mid-1990s, State hired fewer than 90 officers annually.
Powell brings a personal touch, as well as a public one, to the State Department. He has become a fixture in State’s everyday life. If he’s in Washington, and not at the White House, Powell swears in every ambassador, as well as every graduating class of Foreign Service officers. He stops to chat with everyone from senior aides to maintenance workers.
The secretary hardly resembles his aloof predecessors. Some career ambassadors coolly note that they never met former secretary Madeline Albright, and they have trouble recalling much about her predecessor, Warren Christopher.
Powell is beloved. He draws on an “enormous depth of prestige,” says one former ambassador. “He has a great personal story,” says another. “He’s bright, avuncular, articulate . . . someone people can look up to.” It seems impossible to find anyone who will utter an unkind word about Powell. Even Gingrich, who slammed State’s policies, recoils at the notion that he might be perceived as personally attacking the secretary. Through a spokesman, he declined an interview for this story for fear his critique would appear to be aimed at Powell.
Powell has rallied his troops, equipped them, improved their quarters and fought for the respect he believes they deserve. But in the end, does it matter?
“You can be a well-liked guy,” says Ambassador Keith Brown, president of the Council of American Ambassadors, a group of former political appointees. “It doesn’t mean a damn if you can’t get anything done.” Brown is one of Powell’s biggest fans – he helped write the secretary’s glowing two-year review. But his comments reflect the other side of Powell’s story. He has excelled as the chief of State, but has he fared as well as the nation’s top foreign policy official?
A debate is roiling over which organization exerts most power over foreign policy. Is it State, owing to Powell’s enormous prestige? Or is it the Defense Department, where Donald Rumsfeld and his advisers won the battle to fight in Iraq, even without the United Nations’ imprimatur, and have played a major role in its reconstruction? Former State officials herald Powell’s last-ditch attempt to secure a U.N. resolution on invading Iraq as a diplomatic victory. But they concede diplomacy ultimately failed to swing much support for U.S. action.
Some observers who applaud the means Powell has given State employees to improve their careers point out that the general’s plan may be lacking an end, a vision that defines State’s role. “Powell is very popular, but what has he done” to craft a new consideration of foreign policy, asks Phillip Hughes, a Reagan-era ambassador. Employees appreciate Powell’s changes, but “I’m not sure that that ‘transforms’ anything,” Hughes says. “Where is real thinking about what we’re trying to do with our diplomacy?”
Perhaps Powell doesn’t believe that’s his job. When he opines about U.S. foreign policy successes, he uses the pronoun “we,” as if referring to a conglomeration of State, the White House, and the administration’s entire foreign policy apparatus. He boasts of “the best relationship we’ve had with China in 30 years” and says “we now have a road map unfolding in the Middle East.”
When Powell speaks of conquest, he defers to Bush. “The president has eliminated the Taliban in Afghanistan, eliminated Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.” Powell’s overall assessment of the department and its role is that “foreign policy is working well, and we’re supporting the president.” This is Powell the trooper, who says in his memoir, My American Journey (Ballantine, 1995), that he owes every commander-in-chief “a soldier’s allegiance.” This loyalty may explain why Powell hasn’t articulated a vision for executing foreign policy: Crafting that vision is the president’s job, not Powell’s.
But if he seems to lack a vision, Powell at least has an exit strategy. How could he not? Having an endgame is the final tenet of the Powell doctrine of military engagement that guided the first Gulf War. According to Powell’s principles, the military services must have a clear reason to fight, use overwhelming force, only attack with strong public support and define an exit. It’s not hard to identify those tenets in Powell’s tenure at State.
Powell had clear reason for his State Department campaign: State was crumbling from the inside. Not fixing it would have handicapped the business of diplomacy. And there was obvious support for reform. Powell didn’t choose unpopular battles. Rather, he got behind what mattered most to the career employees, the people who would remain after his term ended. Powell also secured overwhelming force for change in the form of increased spending.
What’s left is the exit strategy. Powell must carve in stone as many reforms as possible before his time is up. Some will easily survive. Computers will stay in the embassies. The new training requirements and promotion criteria are probably popular enough to last under a new administration. But Powell also wants to institutionalize the “new culture” he called for in his speech that fourth day in office. “When you leave, everything you’ve been trying to do leaves with you,” he says. “So you’ve got to embed this in the organization.
“We’re transforming the department,” Powell says, “but doing it in a very careful way, because I want it to last after this set of leaders has gone on. And I don’t want the person who replaces me, whenever that happens, to come in and say, ‘We’ve got to fix all this.'”
It’s up to the department’s employees to carry on after Powell, to keep budgets large enough and to put the career establishment ahead of political interests. Those employees, past and present, describe the Powell era as a window of opportunity. Powell opened the window. What happens next is up to his army. If they can’t press on, it will be their fault, and not Powell’s.
“If all of that goes out when the secretary leaves, then we haven’t learned anything,” says the Foreign Policy Institute’s Peterson.
Have Powell’s loyalists learned? Have they absorbed the doctrine and created a new culture?
“I think so,” Powell says. “If the answer is no, then I’ve got a problem.”