WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Colin Powell's resignation points up a truth about the making of American foreign policy in recent decades: It's the president and his closest advisers in the White House who fashion the policy.
Certainly, Secretary Powell was a loyal servant to President Bush. He was a reassuring presence in the administration for many of America's foreign partners. But in the end he was never a member of the White House inner circle.
"In so many of this administration's policies and pronouncements, he has been the note off key," says Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state. "When they said 'alone,' he said 'with the world,' when they said, 'preemption is a doctrine,' he said it is 'an option.'"
Mr. Powell's announced departure was the most visible of a series of cabinet members whose resignations became public on Monday. Others who have decided to leave government include Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, Education Secretary Rod Paige, and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. Their exits ensure that a second Bush administration will have a host of different faces, if not a different tone, from the first term.
Reelected presidents often take advantage of the natural breaking point to readjust the political calculus. Thus Mr. Bush's pick to replace Attorney General John Ashcroft, a cultural conservative from the Midwest, is Alberto Gonzales - a Hispanic whose elevation might mark a point of pride for an ethnic group in which Republicans made inroads this year.
Powell has told aides he will stay on until a successor is named and confirmed, which could be some time in January. Powell's departure almost certainly guarantees the exit as well of Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who is one of the retired general's closest friends and another voice for diplomacy in an administration that hasn't always been known for a soft touch.
The naming of the person to takeover Powell's portfolio will go farther than any other appointment to set the direction of the second Bush term, experts say, primarily because foreign policy has been what has set the Bush presidency apart. Among those considered a possible successor: United Nations Ambassador John Danforth, a former Republican senator from Missouri, and National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
A Rice appointment would not signal a new direction in Bush foreign policy, but would mirror the actions of past presidents - such as Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush - who placed their closest national security and foreign policy confidants over the State Department.
"By moving his closest adviser to State, it would signal a desire to work more directly with a department that was often out of sync with the administration's policies," says Mr. Inderfurth, now at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.
Some US allies received the news of Powell's departure with apprehension. In part, that's because he was seen as the most ally-friendly member of the Bush foreign-policy team. It's also because the move comes at such a critical moment in world affairs. Some foreign officials in Washington say they hope a change at Foggy Bottom will not distract the US at a time when windows for diplomacy are open in the Middle East and over Iran.
"That Powell would leave at some point is not the surprise, but the timing is a bit unexpected and unsettling," says one European official, noting that among other things Powell will attend a high-level meeting of Iraq's neighbors in Egypt later this month. "We hope he does not end up viewed as a lame duck."
Many Europeans, in particular, view Powell's departure with trepidation. "He was the one member of this team who knew about working with allies and showed he understood why that is important," says the European official. "He still sold US foreign policy, but he reached out and didn't just tell us about decisions already taken."
In the days since Bush's reelection, speculation had built that Powell was in fact likely to stay on for some time. The theory was that he was energized both by the president's victory and by the renewed opportunities for diplomacy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the death of Yasser Arafat. But some analysts now speculate that it may be the president who wants someone closer to his way of thinking in the top diplomatic post.
"After Arafat left the scene [Powell] would have liked to do something closer to what [Henry] Kissinger and [George] Schulz did - the shuttle diplomacy," says Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official in the Reagan administration who worked with Powell in the past. "He would have preferred that as his legacy. But maybe the president was not as keen as he was on that model."
Noting the string of other areas where Powell supported a different tack - from North Korea to Iraq - Korb says Powell may have "read the writing on the wall" and decided to resign now.
Despite often being at odds with the White House on policy, Powell knew whom he worked for. He was aware that his job was to promote the president's foreign policy. As a result, his legacy is likely to be that of the "good soldier" who put a kinder, gentler face on a foreign policy that detoured from the traditional American path in an era of heightened terrorism.
"I think he [Powell] thought he would shape foreign policy," says Mr. Korb. "But as it turned out it was really done by Vice President Cheney and [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld. He thought it would be him, and instead it was them."
Certainly, one disappointment for Powell is likely to be that, in the absence of any flashy diplomatic success, his presentation on Iraq to the UN in February of 2003 will probably live on for many around the world as their image of this secretary of state. As it turned out, much of the intelligence Powell cited in his map- and photo session of Iraq's weapons programs was faulty. The rest of the administration moved beyond the WMD argument, finding other justifications for the Iraq war.
But Powell remained troubled by the damage the presentation caused to US credibility. He insisted on investigating what happened, and even said he might have thought differently about going to war if he had known the truth about Iraq's arms and status as an imminent threat.
That doubt set him apart from the administration he served, and may be one explanation for why he is leaving it now.