Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Good Soldier Powell

The New York Times
November 16, 2004

Good Soldier Powell

As Secretary of State Colin Powell resigned yesterday, reportedly to be succeeded by the national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, it was hard to avoid the feeling that this imposing figure - who once personified the dignity, integrity and promise of government service and was the first African-American considered to have a shot at the White House - will be remembered for one picture and three sentences.

On Feb. 5, 2003, in an appearance before the United Nations Security Council, Mr. Powell, the retired four-star general and former national security adviser, held up a vial of white powder as a symbol of what he claimed - falsely, as it turned out - were Iraq's huge stockpiles of anthrax. He offered a scathing indictment of Saddam Hussein. "My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources,'' he said. "These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence."

As an increasingly angry world soon learned, Mr. Powell in fact offered half-truths, poorly analyzed intelligence and outright fantasies, from a nuclear weapons program in Baghdad that didn't exist to wildly exaggerated estimates of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons stockpiles and its ties to Al Qaeda.

But at the time, Mr. Powell's performance convinced many Americans skeptical about the war that the Iraqi government was a clear and present danger to the rest of the world. His enormous stature and his image as a moderating force within the administration - valued especially by America's European allies - were squandered in defending a unilateral decision he did not agree with to launch a war in which he did not really seem to believe.

From the start of his tenure as secretary of state, there was a question about which Colin Powell had moved into Foggy Bottom. Was it the decisive, charismatic general who coined a military doctrine that called for waging war only after the establishment of a political consensus behind achievable goals and then the commitment of overwhelming force to reach those ends? Or was it the faithful soldier who prized loyalty above all else?

Mr. Powell began with promise, forcing the long-neglected issues of Africa to the forefront of the administration's agenda. Even after 9/11, when those issues naturally took the back seat, the ├╝ber-Powell was forever being rumored to be on the cusp of emerging and asserting himself over Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and even Vice President Dick Cheney.

But it's now clear that Mr. Powell long ago chose loyalty over leadership and was not a major figure in the biggest foreign policy decisions of the Bush administration. Most accounts of the rush to war in Iraq show that Mr. Powell was deeply troubled about the planning for the war, its timing and the intense opposition of most of Washington's European allies. But he was unwilling or unable to exert much influence over the president in that critical time, and it's not clear whether Mr. Bush even consulted him before making his decision to go to war.

There were moments in his tenure when Mr. Powell could have resigned over principle. But he soldiered on, leaving when it was safe and convenient for his boss. Yesterday, he told the world that he'd long ago given up any ambition of sticking around for a second term. In the end, his legacy may simply be that the administration that bungled the handling of a war because the president failed to heed the Powell Doctrine was the one in which Mr. Powell himself served.