Colin Powell’s Death Hits Career Diplomats Hard At a Precarious Time
For the Foreign Service, the blow is a reminder of just how low morale has sunk since the former secretary of state left Foggy Bottom.
Colin Powell listened with growing but controlled anger. He saw the question coming. After all, there was no charge against a secretary of state more serious than the one leveled by some members of his own Republican Party — and even some of his colleagues in the administration he served at the time. They accused him of leading a government agency that not only opposed President George W. Bush’s foreign policy, but also tried to undermine it. “It’s bullshit,” he blurted out. “That’s quotable.”
Course language was hardly characteristic of Powell, especially in an on-the-record interview. But sitting across from him in the small inner office of the secretary’s suite on the State Department’s seventh floor, I didn’t need a sixth sense to notice that he had had it. It was January 2004, more than 10 months after the invasion of Iraq, and weapons of mass destruction were still nowhere to be found. He said he had been “pleased” to make the case at the United Nations a year earlier that Saddam Hussein possessed such weapons “on behalf of my president” — something he would soon come to regret. What he couldn’t stomach were the accusations of disloyalty, and that by trying to slow the march to war, he had made himself irrelevant in Bush’s inner circle and marginalized his department in policy-making.
“People are fond of pointing out that I may not be on the president’s agenda,” he said. “I am on the president’s agenda. I know what he wants. I see him many times a week — in groups or alone. And the people who work for me respond to the direction that the president gives to me and I give to them.” Then he added: “I can show you people in Washington who claim to be pushing the president’s agenda, who are not.”
It gave me no pleasure to make Powell angrier than I had ever seen him before, having covered him in Washington and traveled with him around the world as a reporter. But I knew he understood that I had a job to do, and he knew me well enough to recognize that I wasn’t taking a cheap shot. He later asked if I had turned 30 yet. I hadn’t. We stayed in touch for years — he invited me to “drop by” his office and sent emails from foreign airports, as well as thank-you notes when I sent him my books.
Those of us who knew him as a diplomat were hit particularly hard by his death last week. For the Foreign Service, it was a blow at an especially precarious time — a reminder of just how low morale has sunk since he led the department. Having survived four years of being insulted, sidelined and forced out by the Trump administration, many career diplomats are struggling to come to terms with the realization that, despite saying the right things, the Biden administration has yet to undertake serious and much needed State Department reforms.
As they mourned Powell, current and former Foreign Service officers remembered the impact he had on their lives and careers. He “forever changed my generation of diplomats and our culture for the better,” said Dana Linnet, a former officer. He “was known for his unprecedented accessibility to career diplomats, especially junior officers. He once showed up unannounced at my consular training class, tapped my shoulder and asked, ‘So who do we have in jail today?,’ inviting me, a first-tour officer at the time, to brief him on how to handle precarious visits to serve Americans incarcerated abroad. Powell taught us that there was no place in public service for cynicism. The hallmark of his leadership that made all the difference was his complete support for people. He operated with tremendous integrity and honesty, and was a statesman of exceptional caliber. In my mind, he stands with greats like George Marshall. He is sorely missed.”
Robin Holzhauer, another former officer and currently the Diplomatic Diary’s senior editor, recalled running into Powell in a State Department hallway — below the seventh floor — a day after he was interviewed on MTV in 2002. “He was alone, and I wasn’t sure what to do,” Holzhauer said. “As we passed each other, I said, ‘I saw you on MTV last night.’ He replied with a smile and friendly, ‘Oh?,’ and I responded, ‘Yup… Looking good, sir!” He chuckled, and I walked away. I soon realized that he had slowed down to chat, so I sprinted back in heels down the hall to catch him, but someone less star-struck had snagged the honor of a more in-depth casual conversation.”
Michael Hammer, a Foreign Service officer since 1988, recalled a 2018 conversation with Powell, who said that “people who sacrifice so much for our country deserve top-notch working conditions,” which “makes them more productive.” Hammer, who is currently serving as ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, remembered Powell for his “lasting contributions” to the Foreign Service. “As we rise through the career ranks, a new generation of leaders is wiser because of Secretary Powell’s tutelage and example. We do our best to embody Powell’s decency, respect and appreciation for everyone’s contributions, his commitment to improving the workplace, and of course to have a good sense of humor and not take ourselves too seriously.”
When Powell became secretary of state in 2001, he was shocked to discover how unprepared the Foreign Service was for the 21st century. Hundreds of positions around the world were vacant or had been eliminated, structured professional development of diplomats was nonexistent, and information technology was outdated — most U.S. missions abroad had only one Internet-capable computer for the entire building. Powell didn’t buy the “less is more” motto of the previous decade and decided to do something about it. An experienced and respected military commander, he knew that troops who are not cared for are less motivated and productive. “I came as a former soldier with a sense of responsibility to lead and manage the people,” he told me after leaving office in 2005.
Even before September 11, Powell was able to secure funding for hiring more Foreign Service officers — he called it the Diplomatic Readiness Initiative. “Hiring had stopped for a couple of years in the 1990s,” he said. “You can’t do that to an organization. You’ve got to have blood coming in — fresh blood, new blood.” He also replaced the old computers and other equipment with modern technology. “I’m seen as a bit of a nut case on this, but there was more to this than just getting everybody the Internet-capable computer. It was to show them we are alive, we are well, we are in the 21st century,” he said.
Next to increasing the size of the Foreign Service and modernizing its communications capabilities, introducing mandatory training during an officer’s career has been a lasting legacy of Powell’s tenure. “What I wanted to embed throughout the service was the concept of professional development from junior officer to ambassador, and particularly with respect to leadership and management,” he said. “We found that many people who were in senior positions in the department didn’t have the leadership — not just skills, but training in leadership — to do the kinds of jobs that we were giving them. In the military, you start out with leadership training as a second lieutenant. We didn’t do that at State.”
Powell’s determination to give the Foreign Service the tools it needed to accomplish its mission earned him the service’s admiration and loyalty. Hundreds of officers said that morale had not been that high since the days of George Shultz, President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state. “Powell was the mayor of the building,” said Rena Bitter, who was a consular officer at the embassy in London when I first met her in 2003, and recently became assistant secretary of state for consular affairs. “People felt like they worked for him. They got the message that he cared about the institution. When people perceive loyalty from a leader, they are loyal, too.”
Another “factor the Foreign Service tends to look at in judging whether the secretary truly supports and believes in the service is the degree to which he or she relies on the career people,” said Tom Countryman, a former diplomat who was assistant secretary for international security and nonproliferation. On that front, Powell also scored high. “He worked with the institution and made the institution work,” said Richard Boucher, another former officer and State Department spokesman under Powell.
Visiting foreign countries with Powell was an experience like no other — both for us in the press corps and his staff. Thanks to his charisma, he won people over just by showing up. Yuri Kim, who did advance work on some of Powell’s trips and is now ambassador to Albania, said, “He would walk into a room or hotel lobby, and people would spontaneously get up and start applauding. They didn’t do it for the president, the vice president or anybody else I could see.” On the plane, Powell was disarming, down-to-earth, talkative and often funny, but he rarely spoke about policy — his favorite topics were history and old cars.
In the Bush administration, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld often clashed with Powell on policy. “He has a very interesting cast of characters, and I think he’s had a hard time,” Madeleine Albright, Powell’s predecessor in the Clinton administration, told me when he was in office. “I got hammered early on for wanting to talk to the North Koreans,” Powell said during one of my visits with him after he left government. “Nobody had told me we weren’t going to talk to the North Koreans. What did we do a year later? Exactly what I suggested then.”
During the same interview for my book “America’s Other Army,” Powell said that what was interpreted by some as a policy disagreement over Iraq was actually an effort to exercise caution before going to war. He recalled asking Bush, “Have you thought about everything you are going to get in here? It will be hugely expensive, and it will suck the oxygen out of anything else we are doing. You are now the proud owner of 25 million people. You are the government.”
William Burns, Powell’s assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, told me in 2012 that there were “fairly fierce debates on how important it was to have a lot of company” going into Iraq. “The argument we tried to make was that the importance of having company going in had little to do with the immediate military challenge” of removing Saddam Hussein from power, said Burns, who is currently director of the CIA. “The biggest challenge was going to be the day after, and it was very obvious that the more company we had, the better we could manage the situation. It’s probably fair to say that the department was shunted to the side, but I don’t buy the argument that it was somehow an abdication on the part of Powell or anyone else. I don’t think that’s true. He fought hard.”
Powell understood the turf game in Washington as well as anyone and lamented the misperception that all diplomats are Democrats. He deemed many official policy meetings in the White House excruciating and “found it much easier to have a fulsome intellectual conversation” with Bush “when there was a smaller audience in the room or when we were alone, because he didn’t have to be presiding over something,” he told me in 2005.
“There is always a bias in Washington against the State Department, and when you have a very conservative Republican administration, it’s worse,” he said. “The perception is that diplomats are bad — they want to talk people into things, while soldiers fight or get ready to fight.”
Nicholas Kralev, the executive director of the Washington International Diplomatic Academy, is the author of “America’s Other Army: The U.S. Foreign Service and 21st-Century Diplomacy.”