It's time for Powell to resign

Forced to do the bidding of Caligula-quoting hawks, Secretary of State Colin Powell should salvage his honor and -- like his predecessor Cyrus Vance -- make a principled exit

Published March 6, 2003 11:12PM (EST)

Colin Powell should resign -- now, with honor.

I was the last of two persons to see President Jimmy Carter's Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in his office before he resigned over the Carter administration's handling of American affairs in the wake of the Iranian revolution in 1978-79. Vance was a man of principle, caught in the gears of an internal ideological struggle in the White House.

It may now be time for Secretary of State Colin Powell to consider resigning for much the same reasons.

My companion and I, both Middle East experts, had been called to consult with Vance concerning the disastrous hostage-rescue mission that had grounded American helicopters in the Iranian desert. Vance had been on holiday when the decision to proceed was made in a meeting of the National Security Council, spearheaded by hawkish Cold Warrior Zbigniew Brzezinski (who, ironically, is a voice of caution in the current debate about war with Iraq). Vance asked our opinion of the mission and how it had affected American-Iranian relations, and we both agreed that it had been an ill-conceived, unmitigated disaster that would set back the release of the hostages for a very long time. In fact, they would remain 444 days in captivity.

Vance lowered his head as we talked, shook it from side to side, and said again and again, "I know! I know!"

News of his resignation reached me an hour or so later. I was sad for Vance, but proud of his decision to stick by his convictions.

Another resignation that made me proud was that of career diplomat John Brady Kiesling from the U.S. Embassy in Athens, Greece, which was recently made public. His resignation letter is worth quoting:

"The policies we are now asked to advance are incompatible not only with American values but also with American interests. Our fervent pursuit of war with Iraq is driving us to squander the international legitimacy that has been America's most potent weapon of both offense and defense since the days of Woodrow Wilson. We have begun to dismantle the largest and most effective web of international relationships the world has ever known. Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security."

Kiesling later asks: "Has oderint dum metuant really become our motto?"

This phrase, now quoted regularly among the most militant denizens in the White House, means, "Let them hate us so long as they fear us." It was penned by Lucius Accius, the Roman poet (170 B.C.), and was said to be a favorite phrase of the emperor Caligula.

It is no secret that Colin Powell is at odds with the group that Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware and others have called the "ideologues" in the White House. These consist of Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, and Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John R. Bolton. Bolton was reportedly forced on Powell against his will.

Espousing a pragmatic view favoring diplomacy over violence are Powell and the "uniformed military," consisting of the generals and field commanders.

Powell, a military man himself who never supported "regime change" in the first Gulf War, finds himself in a bureaucratic hammerlock. His supporters are all under the command of people with whom he appears to have serious disagreements. At the same time, the hawkish Bolton sits in Powell's office undermining his philosophy.

Ever the good soldier, Secretary Powell was compelled to squander his reputation for honesty and forthright dealing in a presentation before the United Nations fraught with questionable information and half-formulated conclusions. His credibility was used to serve people with whom he has a basic disagreement. The joy with which his speech was greeted by militants in the White House and right-wing Republicans had as much to do with his perceived "conversion" to their side as it did with the content of the speech.

Having done the bidding of the White House warriors, Powell has now been sidelined. He was sent to East Asia, and the public did not hear from him for several days. He emerged on March 5 to complain in a speech at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Strategic and International Studies that the Iraqi government moves to disarm were "too little too late." However, he showed that he was still not committed to war, saying, "If Iraq complies and disarms even at this late hour, it is possible to avoid war."

I fear that Secretary Powell has been used as badly as Cyrus Vance was used by Brzezinski. Kiesling, the career diplomat in the Athens embassy, has shown his boss the way. It's time for Powell to show his true mettle and leave the fray while his honor is still relatively intact.

By William O. Beeman

William O. Beeman teaches anthropology at Brown University and is the author of "Language, Status And Power In Iran" (Indiana University Press).

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Iraq War