Powell ‘breaking down doors’ at State Department

While Secretary of State Colin Powell is currently preoccupied with crises in Iraq and North Korea, since the beginning of his tenure he has viewed himself not only as the country's chief diplomat, but as the State Department's chief executive officer. That means that at the same time he must travel to the United Nations to make the case for war against Saddam Hussein, he also concerns himself with such issues as making sure Foreign Service technicians get auto insurance coverage.

Last month, National Journal's national security correspondent, James Kitfield, conducted a wide-ranging interview with Powell for the magazine's "Grading the Cabinet" special issue. Part of their discussion focused on Powell's goal of "breaking down the doors" at State between the Foreign Service, the civil service and other parts of the department to improve its operations. Some excerpts from the interview follow.

NJ: When you came in, two of your top priorities were to boost the morale of the State Department and establish good relations with Congress. Why were those so high on your list of goals?

Powell: They were among my priorities. The approach I brought into the department is that I'm the senior foreign policy advisor to the president, but I've also been given an organizational responsibility to be the CEO of the State Department. So I took that very seriously. And I came here not from academia, but from having run large organizations where morale, esprit de corps and a willingness to accomplish a mission were the driving value systems. Because that system worked for me in the past running large military organizations, I wanted to bring it to the State Department.

I also sensed that the State Department was looking for that kind of leadership. They wanted to know what I wanted done, whether or not I trusted them, and whether they could trust me. So I set about trying to demonstrate that I did trust them, that they could trust the new team that was coming in, and that together we were going to try and deal with some of the problems that State has had in the past. And one of those problems was we didn't have the best relationship with Congress.

NJ: So you decided early on to try and win Congress over to the State Department's cause?

Powell: I immediately reached out to Congress. A lot of previous studies had said, for instance, that the department ought to have its own office up on Capital Hill. Except nobody was able to accomplish that. We did it. We now have an office up on the House side, and I plan on opening one on the Senate side as well. It's just a matter of finding the right space.

Now that we have a presence on Capital Hill, I tell all members of Congress, "If you have a problem with anything having to do with visas, constituent services, travel-or if you want to know what we're thinking about a particular foreign policy issue-go to my office. It's your office. It's there for you." And it's really working well. I even have Senate members going to our House office for those reasons.

NJ: Committee sources say that you are not only generally willing to testify whenever asked, but that you have also empowered your subordinates to testify more.

Powell: I spend a lot of time with the members. I testify with relish, and I look forward to testifying. I also have no conflict, personality difficulty or jurisdictional problem with any members on my committees. I defy you to be the best investigative reporter you can and go up there and find one.

In one of my early staff meetings I also asked my staff whether they felt constrained about going up to Congress and talking to them. And the answer was, "Yeah, we do." So I said, "No longer feel constrained. You're my assistant secretaries. I trust you. You know what I'm trying to do. You understand our policies. We meet every day. You know what I want. Go talk to Congress."

NJ: Is that leadership style of empowering subordinates something else you learned as an Army officer?

Powell: Well, how can you not empower subordinates? You can't fight a battle both by being at the command post and also being in the front lines. You've got to trust your front line people to get the work done. What's the point of having assistant secretaries, for instance, if I don't have enough confidence in them to go up and talk to a member of Congress? If they don't have enough confidence to know what I want, then I'm not communicating well enough with them so that they understand what I'm all about.

NJ: You're also said to defer more than your predecessor to the expertise of embassy teams in the field.

Powell: I felt it was important to express the same attitude to my battalions around the world, my ambassadors, and all of the missions around the world. It wasn't enough just to have it here in the Truman Building. I wanted every one of the roughly 200 missions we have around the world also believing that we would do the right thing for them, and that they had to do the right thing for us. And I think we've been reasonably successful at that.

That's why we fought for more staffing for the department. We're in the process of adding 1,200 jobs. In my first two years, we've also had 80,000 people take the written Foreign Service Exam, which is record numbers. On the last Foreign Service Exam, the pass rate among minorities was 38 percent. We're reaching out because we want the department to look like our society. And we're not just making people take tests, but actually hiring them. Likewise, we fixed the overseas building operation so that our people know that we are committed to making sure they have safe, secure places in which to work. We are putting information technology into all of our embassies so that everybody has Internet access, and everybody knows they're at the cutting edge of technology and diplomacy. We've made other investments in people, such as opening up child care centers. I busted my butt to get auto insurance coverage for my Foreign Service technicians. Why am I focusing on that kind of detail? Because it's important to them. That explains why I have superb relations with our two unions.

The point is, we're trying to create a team atmosphere where everyone is pulling together, as opposed to having the Foreign Service in this corner, the civil service in that corner, and Foreign Service technicians and retirees somewhere else. We've got different names, but I'm breaking down the doors and trying to stop this segregation between our various components in order to emphasize that we're all part of the same family. It's all one team.

NJ: Did you become comfortable with the teamwork approach as a senior military officer?

Powell: There's a sort of military joke that explains that phenomenon. A fighter pilot goes out, gets in his airplane, kicks the tires, lights it off, and away he goes and he's the king of the sky. And all he wants to do is find some one person to duel with up there. A sailor goes to sea, and once he leaves port he is supreme aboard his ship and he doesn't have to ask anybody for anything. He is the captain of his ship. He can even marry people. He can do anything he wants. Army infantrymen, however, are different. We fight on battlefields where there's always somebody to the left, somebody to the right, and somebody behind us. We are essentially trained to form alliances with all the other people on the battlefield who are supporting us. So there's a certain mentality there that, frankly, I can't help. I practiced it for 35 years.

Forming alliances between the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines was also what I had to do as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I commanded none of the services, but I had to get them all to work together.

NJ: You are clearly the person in the Bush administration that officials in many foreign capitals seem most comfortable voicing their concerns to. Do you think your background as a minority, the son of immigrants and a career Army officer have given you a valuable perspective in terms of international diplomacy?

Powell: Yeah, I think there's something to that. I've been a chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and in that capacity I traveled the world for four years pulling together coalitions for war. I also traveled the world extensively as national security adviser and deputy national security adviser, and I traveled extensively with [former Secretary of Defense Caspar] Weinberger during the three years I worked for him.

While it may sometimes be overdone, there is also something about my background as a minority and immigrant kid that grew up in the Bronx, New York, that gives me a certain aura in appealing to foreign audiences, especially in-how shall we put it?-the non-white world. Then after Desert Storm I was fairly well known around the world via CNN. That gave me a certain entrée into countries where I am known not so much as Secretary of State, but rather as that guy who used to be on CNN all the time.

NJ: One last question. Some close colleagues have depicted you as a somewhat reluctant warrior when you signed on for this job. Has your tenure as Secretary of State lived up to your own expectations and personal goals?

Powell: Well, I was living a rather comfortable life in the civilian world, but if I was reluctant I wouldn't be here in the first place, because I kind of knew what the job would require. And yeah, I'm very happy that I am providing advice that the president finds useful, and that he uses to shape his opinions and decisions. If the president didn't find my advice useful, and I didn't sense it was having an effect, then he should ask me to go and I should ask to go. So I think I'm living up to the expectations I had in taking the job.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec