Would a Yiddish-speaking African American army general who served as national security adviser and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff be a good president?
Perhaps. But while everyone mulls that question, let's consider the narrower issue of whether he would be good for the Jews on issues related to Israel.
If you are looking for the answer, save $25 and skip his new autobiography because it barely mentions Israel and provides no insights into his views on Middle East policy. The closest you'll find to substance on the subject is his reference to Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon as a move that "upset the always precarious Middle East balance."
A clue to his broader foreign policy might be gleaned from his remark that "sometimes the wisest weapon is restraint." He said this in praising Yitzhak Shamir for resisting the pressure to retaliate against Iraq for the Scud attacks.
"The forbearance of the Israelis, in the face of intense provocation, going completely against their grain, in my judgment helped keep the coalition intact," Powell wrote.
The end of the remark is disturbing because it suggests he bought into the specious argument that the whole operation would have been jeopardized by Israeli involvement.
One interesting anecdote from his memoir concerns opposition by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to the sale of missiles to Kuwait. He incorrectly refers to AIPAC as the American Israeli Political Action Committee. The organization has been fighting the misperception for years that it is a PAC and Powell's slip illustrates that the problem remains.
Powell relates that an AIPAC official told him the organization would oppose the sale of Maverick D missiles to be consistent with earlier opposition to a similar sale proposed to the Saudis. To his astonishment, Powell discovered AIPAC would not oppose the sale of Maverick G missiles, which were more destructive. The sale was approved.
"Everyone was happy," Powell writes, "AIPAC had blocked the sale of D-model Mavericks to the Kuwaitis, just as it had to the Saudis, thus saving face. The Kuwaitis got a mystifying windfall. And the aircraft and missile manufacturers had a big sale."
Powell has been as popular with the Jewish community as he has with the general public. He wowed many Jews in 1991 when he addressed the AIPAC Policy Conference, starting off in Yiddish.
In that speech, he noted that the Gulf War destroyed the myth that the United States must choose between Israel and the Arabs. He lauded Israel's "heroic restraint" after withstanding the Scud missile attacks. He also said the friendship between our nations is "symbolized by the strategic cooperation between both countries. Cooperation that will grow."
He also talked about going to Israel and feeling so comfortable he could speak to his Israeli counterparts in "short-hand, the kind that develops among close and dear friends." He traced this relationship to the basis of the alliance's "democratic cooperation…a cooperation based on rules of law and democracy."
Powell concluded with the kind of passionate statement every friend of Israel hopes for from public officials: "We have stood with Israel throughout its history. We have demonstrated again and again that our roots are intertwined, as they are with all nations who share our beliefs in openness and democracy. So let there be no question that America will stand by Israel today. And, let there be no question that America will stand by Israel in the future. Peace in the Middle East, a peace we all yearn for, can only be secured if the U.S.-Israeli relationship remains strong and vibrant."
Those were his most extensive public remarks on the Middle East. As Joint Chiefs chairman, Powell had a role in the growth of strategic cooperation between the United States and Israel, but he was not a catalyst.
Little information is available about his involvement in Middle East issues during the early years of the Reagan Administration. He had a tangential involvement in Iran-Contra, having arranged, at Caspar Weinberger's direction, for TOW missiles to be transferred to the CIA, which then forwarded them to Israel.
In his biography of Powell, Howard Means wrote of his time at the National Security Council: "As for the Middle East, neither Powell nor anyone else in the administration had a finely tuned antenna."
In their biography of Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, Janet and John Wallach claim that Powell, as national security adviser in 1988, wrote a letter assuring Arafat that Reagan would honor a secret commitment to begin an official U.S. dialogue with the PLO.
The letter was written while the U.S. was publicly denying it had any contact with the PLO and, the authors say, the missive was a key element in persuading Arafat to recognize Israel and renounce terrorism.
The most frequent criticism of Powell relates to his reluctance to finish off Saddam Hussein's army. Powell favored containment of Saddam, strangling Iraq by a U.N.-backed economic blockade that stopped short of actual war.
After the war, Powell defended the decision not to continue on to Baghdad: "I have no reason to think that recommendation [to call for a cease-fire with Iraq] was incorrect. We had achieved our military mission. We had achieved the political objective we had been assigned, and it was time to stop the killing, and I have no second thoughts about that…"
Powell is only beginning to air his views on current issues, including the Mideast. Yet when he was at the Pentagon under Jimmy Carter, Powell was jokingly known as "the black Jew," according to a vice admiral who worked with him.
I'm not sure what that means. But I do know it's difficult to find much to dislike about Powell, and there's certainly no evidence that he would be anything other than a great friend of Israel.
My only hesitation comes from comparisons between Powell and the last general to reach the White House, Dwight Eisenhower. Despite liberating the concentration camps, Eisenhower turned out to be the most anti-Israel president ever. In that respect, at least, I hope Powell is no Ike.