Powell at State

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Gen. Colin Powell is already busy learning the ropes and hearing about the problems he'll inherit next month when, after Senate confirmation, he becomes secretary of state.

Ensconced in the transition offices which have been set aside for him and his staff, Powell held a series of meetings Monday with such senior officials as Under Secretary for Political Affairs Tom Pickering and Marc Grossman, Director General of the Foreign Service.

Actually, the briefings began Sunday when his predecessor, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, invited Powell to her Georgetown home for a three-hour review of the issues he will soon face as the nation's top diplomat.

What is uncertain is just how clear a picture Gen. Powell is being given.

Ed Abington, a retired foreign service officer who tangled with Albright and lost, says the State Department is "demoralized, underfunded and ineffective."

Albright and Warren Christopher, President Clinton's first secretary of state, spent the last eight years trying to get more funding for the department from a Congress dominated by Republicans and generally antagonistic to most of the programs and policies of the Clinton administration.

For someone like Powell, who is used to Pentagon-sized budgets, dealing with Congress may be even more important than dealing with foreign ministers around the world.

One senior aide to Albright said Powell "will be stunned at the level of technology at State…compared to the Pentagon. He'll be flipped out."

The pneumatic tubes used to move messages around the building that Albright found when she arrived are gone, but, officials say, they are still trying to upgrade computers so classified information can reach the desktop computer of every foreign service officer abroad.

Currently, in some locations, senior diplomats have to use the communications center of an embassy to transmit and receive classified info instead of working at their desks. Fixing the problem will require bigger budgets for State and only Congress can appropriate the money.

Gen. Powell will face many of the same issues Albright has been dealing with:

  • Middle East peace negotiations are nowhere near finished and violence continues between Israelis and Palestinians
  • Saddam Hussein continues to bedevil the international community and is, most analysts say, in a stronger position now than he was after the Gulf War ended, notwithstanding U.N.-imposed sanctions
  • Russia has not only a new and untested leader but also a shaky economy which causes worry about instability
  • The Balkans, though moving slowly toward democracy, remain unstable.
Then there is the constant worry about terrorism — two U.S. embassies were bombed in 1998 — international narcotics trafficking and nuclear missile proliferation from states like North Korea and Russia.

"Powell will need a strong management team," says former diplomat Abington, adding, "He'll neemore money from Congress…to make him a more effective secretary of state."

In his public remarks so far, Powell has not sounded that much different from Albright.

The true test, however, comes after confirmation, when the first crisis hits the administration of George W. Bush. Only then will Powell's considerable personal skills and military background be tested; Only then will the nation know how to assess the selection of Colin Powell as Secretary of State.

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