When Colin Powell announced his resignation as secretary of state on November 15, he didn't just take away the remaining vestiges of foreign-policy centrism from the Bush administration. He also eclipsed the departure of his deputy and best friend, Richard Armitage. With Powell out, hard-liners inside and outside of the administration found themselves victorious, wrote Mike Allen of The Washington Post, because his departure “remov[ed] the administration's most forceful advocate for negotiations and multilateral engagement on such issues as Middle East peace and curbing nuclear activities in Iran and North Korea.”
But Allen and the rest of the media missed an important point: Powell may have been the moderate with the highest profile in George W. Bush's first term, but, to a considerable degree, it was Armitage who supplied the steel fist inside Powell's velvet glove -- and that fist often swung at the administration's neoconservatives, holding a tenuous bureaucratic line against some of their grander designs. Michael Rubin, a former Middle East analyst in the Pentagon's policy directorate (an outpost of neoconservatism), paid tribute to Armitage's infighting skills in a September e-mail to friends in which he speculated that a prominent journalist “regularly reports Armitage's line in exchange for weekly backgrounders.”
Armitage and Powell have enjoyed some outright victories, as in the mid-2002 India-Pakistan crisis, when their efforts -- capped by an emergency trip Armitage took to the subcontinent in June -- helped avert a war that could have gone nuclear. But more often, Armitage's influence was felt through his struggles to fight the neoconservatives to a draw. Typically, he mixed shrewd bureaucratic maneuvers with well-timed public statements to block a more radical course of action. “His absence is going to creep up on you,” says a longtime Armitage ally. “You won't really notice it until you say, ‘How'd we get to this point?'”
As a counterweight to administration hard-liners, Powell made perfect sense, having crafted a career -- and a famous military doctrine -- emphasizing the virtues of caution and consensus. Armitage is a more curious case. He was a signatory to the Project for the New American Century's 1998 letter urging President Clinton to make “removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power … the aim of American foreign policy.” Fellow signatory Paul Wolfowitz, the foremost neoconservative intellectual and now Armitage's counterpart at the Defense Department, has worked cordially with Armitage for more than 20 years, ever since both crafted Asia policy for the Reagan administration. During Armitage's 2001 confirmation hearings, no less a hard-line eminence than Jesse Helms enthused, “You know what I like about you? Everything.”
What Helms and other conservatives might not have liked over the last four years is Armitage's seemingly visceral resistance to ideology. “I'm not going to attempt to try to label for you the architecture for the new world order and the new foreign-policy paradigm,” he told the Senate during his confirmation testimony. “I can't do it.” His discomfort with ideological crusades stems largely from his experience as a Navy officer in Vietnam. While Powell and other veterans came home embittered by the dishonesty that led the United States into the quagmire, Armitage was influenced more by the human suffering that followed the American departure: Ideological fervor had proven dangerous by its very fragility when the going got tough. As James Mann writes in Rise of the Vulcans, Armitage was so disgusted by the United States' eventual abandonment of South Vietnam that he remained in the country as a civilian adviser and dramatically guided a flotilla of 20,000 refugees to the Philippines after the May 1975 fall of Saigon. (His experiences with the war also helped create the loyalty that he brought to his relationship with Powell.)
So while Armitage's years in Vietnam bred in him a suspicion of ideology, it didn't breed in him a hostility to American power, which led some bewildered observers during the first few months of the Bush administration to consider him neither hawk nor dove. After the April 2001 Chinese spy-plane mini-crisis, a Los Angeles Times op-ed surveyed the competing factions within the administration and judged that Armitage had “divided loyalties.”
In fact, on China, his loyalties have demonstrated themselves to be reliably anti-neocon. Hawks, especially inside the Pentagon, have attempted to nudge the United States away from the long-standing “one China” policy, which recognizes China's claim to Taiwan, and toward a more forthright backing of Taipei. In March 2002, the administration permitted the Taiwanese defense minister to meet with Wolfowitz at a Florida conference -- the highest-level U.S.–Taiwan defense contacts since 1979 -- over the furious protests of Beijing. Steps like these encouraged Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian to issue his provocative August 2002 statement that there exists “one country on each side” of the Taiwan Strait. It was left to Armitage to pour cold water on the idea. He bluntly responded that month in Beijing that “the United States does not support Taiwan independence.” When Chen made a brief visit to New York in October 2003, Armitage practically guaranteed that the Taiwanese president wouldn't be met by an envoy by placing a feathers-smoothing phone call instead. “This relationship [with China] is critical, and the inclination of the neocons is very anti-China,” explains a former Armitage aide. “Taiwan is a tiny freaking island.”
Armitage was again pitted against Vice President Dick Cheney and Undersecretary of State John Bolton, Cheney's ally at Foggy Bottom's arms-control directorate, over North Korea. The hawks' desire to destabilize the rule of dictator Kim Jong-Il led to a period of intense policy debate within the administration after the October 2002 revelations that the North had embarked upon a uranium-enrichment program to yield nuclear weapons. A panicked Roo Moo-hyun, the South Korean president, publicly warned in January 2003 that “some U.S. officials, who held considerable responsibility in the administration, talked about the possibility of attacking North Korea.”
Armitage responded by fighting the regime-changers publicly. That month he flatly declared, “We have no hostile intentions toward North Korea, and we're not going to invade North Korea.” When, that summer, a six-nation diplomatic parley was announced, Armitage said in Australia that “Mr. Bolton was not scheduled and will not be participating.” “That was a punctuation point,” says Ambassador Jack Pritchard, who at the time was Bush's special envoy to Pyongyang. “Armitage reached out and thumped Bolton.”
On the neocons' most important priority -- the Iraq invasion -- the picture is more complicated. “Rich Armitage was not an opponent of the war in Iraq,” says one of his closest associates. “… But there were many times when he thought that [the Pentagon hawks] were nuts, and were not approaching this as adults.” And at those times, he fought back. In January 2003 testimony to the Senate, Armitage publicly stated that on the question of the much-hyped aluminum tubes -- and the subsequently debunked claim that they were part of an Iraqi nuclear-weapons program -- “there's a difference of opinion in the intelligence community.” (This was almost a week before Powell's infamous United Nations presentation, in which he told the world that the tubes were for nukes.) And as the United States faced increasing Iraqi resistance in summer 2003, Armitage pointedly endorsed a plan to create “a multinational force under UN leadership” to lend legitimacy to the occupation -- a statement, made without White House approval, that backed a policy Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had already said was “not going to happen.” The administration soon returned to the United Nations for a new Security Council mandate; as a Pentagon official told the Post, “Armitage's statement gave it traction.”
Which isn't to say that Armitage was able to move Bush in an alternative, less ideological direction. “The key battles were lost,” sighs an Armitage confidante. With a president vastly more comfortable with Cheney and Wolfowitz's approach to foreign policy, not every battle can be won -- or even fully waged. But in such circumstances, there's something to be said for damage control. As Pritchard puts it, “Imagine how bad it could have been.” With Armitage and Powell gone -- and Bush turning the State Department and CIA into a hard-liner echo chamber -- we may not have to.
Spencer Ackerman is an associate editor at The New Republic.