Jewish World Review April 22, 2004 /1 Iyar 5764
Did loyalty finally trip up Colin Powell?
I just can't wait for Thursday because Colin Powell keeps getting more interesting every day.
"Plan of Attack," Bob Woodward's new behind-the-scenes book about how and why President Bush went to war against Iraq, portrays a secretary of state who was blatantly dissed by his boss back in January, 2003.
Since the release of the book last weekend, Powell and the Bush administration have disputed Woodward's account of Powell being informed of Bush's critical decision to go to war only after Bush informed Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and even Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar.
This dispute is curious, since Powell admitted on Monday that he was among the many people Woodward interviewed, including President Bush. Powell has long been known to be not only a good source for Woodward, but also a diplomat who knows how to play the media as well as John Coltrane played the tenor sax.
Either way, the administration praised most of the book as a fair and generally complimentary account of the days leading up to the war.
Which raises a big question in my mind: Why didn't Powell quit while he was behind?
Powell was doing fine until he joined the Bush administration. With his charismatic presence, his formidable biography and squeaky-clean reputation (despite spending a lot of time in Washington), Powell was among America's most admired men.
But his tenure as secretary of state has faced one setback after another, mostly at the hands of Cheney, Rumsfeld and other neo-conservatives.
Powell's first months in office were so low profile that Time magazine asked on its cover "Where Is Colin Powell?" The date of that issue, ironically, was Sept. 10, 2001. His profile soon rose, but in August of 2002, it was conservatives beseeching Powell to get on the Iraq war bandwagon or get out of the way. Leading neo-conservative William Kristol wrote in The Weekly Standard that Powell should sort out "how best to execute the president's policy or he should step aside and let someone else do the job."
Powell once told Bush in the Oval Office that the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed with him that the U.S. should present a new UN resolution on the occupation of Iraq, even though Rumsfeld opposed going back to the UN. Bush returned to the UN but the resulting resolution did not call for nearly as much internationalization of political power in Iraq as Powell wanted.
After persuasively presenting claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to the UN that have turned out to be bogus, Powell's once-mighty stature has been reduced among Democrats and America's allies, among others. Within the administration, his sacrifice appears to have won him nothing. His image remains positive, but less superhuman. Super-Colin looks more like a semi-Colin.
Powell's biggest leverage is his popularity. His approval ratings tend to run in the high 70 percent range and even in the 80s. Cheney, whose ratings tend to run in the 40s or, on a good day, the 50s, reportedly chided Powell to sacrifice some of his high approval ratings by supporting his crusade to topple Saddam Hussein.
Powell, the good soldier that he is, sallied forth, investing some of his political capital.
Will Powell stick around for a second Bush term? "I serve at the pleasure of my president," he has responded enigmatically when reporters have asked. Translation: "I'm out of here."
So I can't help but wonder, what if he had quit? Just think of how much impact that would have had. Widespread shock! Headlines! Media frenzy! Sober regrets from stony-faced Cabinet members trying to explain it all.
Maybe, just maybe, Powell could have slowed the train long enough for Americans to have gone into the war, if it came to that, with more information upon which to base their views. By now, he might be seen as some sort of principled hero.
He's not likely to resign now. He's a good soldier and, besides, it's too late. He needed to have quit while the administration was up and he was down, back when the final plans for the war were being laid down.
Besides, as a quitter, he would never drink lunch in this town again. In Washington, a protest-resignation brands you for life as a loose cannon who can't be fully trusted with another government appointment by either party. But Powell is not likely to stick around for another Bush term, if there is one. Sometimes, as John F. Kennedy used to say, party loyalty asks too much.
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