Shortly before the holidays, just before he underwent surgery for prostate cancer, Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a forlorn and illuminating interview to the Washington Post, unpublished in full, explaining that there was no matter of principle over which he would resign and depicting his tenure as a long mission of retreat and loss.
Powell’s elegiac tone is in striking contrast to the reigning triumphalism of official Washington. While Bush’s popularity spiked to one of its high points on the news of Saddam Hussein’s capture, and his campaign operation is ginning up his national security doctrine of “preemptive self-defense” (as a Republican television ad has put it) to pose against the supposedly soft Democrats, the secretary of state presents himself as bereft, tragic and noble.
In the full transcript of his interview, posted without fanfare on the State Department’s Web site, Powell chooses to identify with two of his predecessors: Thomas Jefferson, the first secretary of state, and George C. Marshall, like Powell an army general. He observed that the “single trait that always comes to me most often when I think about these two guys is selfless service.” When Marshall was passed over for Dwight Eisenhower in being given command of the D-day invasion, Powell said, “Whatever disappointment he felt over that, he simply ate it.” When Marshall argued against President Truman’s recognition of the state of Israel, he took his loss in silence, and Powell quoted him: “No, gentlemen, you don’t take a post of this sort, and then resign when the man who has the constitutional responsibility to make decisions makes one you don’t like.”
Powell said he raised those incidents because he wanted to illustrate “my personal code.” Without prompting, he spoke about Jefferson: “He said something along the lines, ‘I go now to the task that you have put before me, in the certain knowledge that I will come out of it diminished.’”
Powell’s valedictory note suggests that the Bush administration’s most prestigious and popular figure is almost certainly preparing for his retirement. For many in the Congress and among traditional allies, including Tony Blair, Powell has been seen as the voice of reason, the only and indispensable partner. His absence as a countervailing force in a second Bush term is hardly imaginable, and his lame duck status will have consequences in a campaign centered on national security and in the conduct of foreign policy.
Powell’s loyalty to those who have shepherded his career from the Nixon administration to the present has taken precedence over all else. He has won battles but lost the wars. His efforts, along with Blair’s, to pursue the United Nations route on Iraq are now revealed by the former director of State Department policy planning, Richard Haass, to have been largely a matter of public relations. Haass says that National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice told him in June 2002: “Save your breath — the president has already decided what he’s going to do on this.”
Most recently, Powell has made grand gestures and statements without anyone else in the administration lending him even face-saving rhetorical support. He is more isolated than ever. This week, for example, he praised a group of private citizens who traveled to North Korea — and who won apparent concessions from the regime there that would open the way for negotiations on its nuclear weaponry and proliferation. But Powell’s words on Korea fall weightless.
In fact, the leader of that private delegation, Charles “Jack” Pritchard, is not just some errant do-gooder. He is the former chief State Department negotiator for Korea, Powell’s own man. A career military officer, he abruptly quit last August because he was stymied by one of Powell’s many internal nemeses, the right-wing Under Secretary of State John Bolton (despised, incidentally, in the upper reaches of the British government). Powell may favor a policy on North Korea, but the United States has none.
There has been nothing with which Powell has disagreed that he has deemed worthy of fighting to the end. He has given his best advice, husbanded his inherent power, and accepted policies he’s privately told senators and others have been calamitous on the diplomatic run-up to the Iraq war, the Middle East peace process, and North Korea. His presence has lent the appearance that there could have been another course, when on the important issues that has been proved an illusion.
In Errol Morris’ documentary on Robert McNamara, “The Fog of War,” the former secretary of defense in the Vietnam War era justifies his refusal to take a stand against a disastrous policy he believed could never succeed as selfless service to President Johnson. In the same way, Powell has now offered his case for failing to resign but making no argument for principle. His pathos raises the questions of whether he ever believed in anything greater than his sterling career, how complicit he has been in his own plight, and whether he has been the good soldier as enabler. Now the fate of the “diminished” Powell will inevitably be raised as a contentious issue in the harsh arena of campaign politics. In the final frame Powell is about to lose all control.