Odd man out

Internationalist Colin Powell's losing battle to rein in the administration's neoconservatives is over.

By Julian Borger
Published November 16, 2004 6:52PM (UTC)
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When he was still a military man, Colin Powell drew up a list of 13 rules to live by. Most have come in useful in his four years in the Bush administration but none more so than No. 3: "Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it."

Powell's positions on U.S. foreign policy fell with such thudding regularity that a secretary of state with less philosophical detachment might have resigned long ago. A lone internationalist in an administration full of neoconservatives heady with American power, he was publicly contradicted by the White House over North Korea, and had his negotiating position taken from under him while in the midst of Middle East talks.


Powell was barred from talking to the press about vital diplomatic issues, and in February 2003, he was sent to the U.N. to argue for a war he did not believe was necessary with evidence that later turned out to be almost entirely bogus, shredding years of carefully accrued international credibility in a single day.

The question constantly hovering over Powell's head over the past four years of isolation has been: "Why does he stay?" One answer put forward by his colleagues at the State Department was that he was a good soldier, and would never desert his post. That was no doubt all the more important a consideration after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The other side of that coin is that he believed his struggle to rein in the radical militarist instincts of the president and his coterie of advisors was a battle that could not be shirked, for the sake of the country and for the soldiers who would be sent to die as a consequence of the decisions taken in Washington.


That was Powell's lonely war.

Asked why he traveled so little for a secretary of state, his aides would point out that all power lay in Washington, and that is where the action was. It often seemed he was not so much America's representative working for U.S. interests abroad as the world's sole voice in the American capital. The neoconservatives saw his role that way and despised him for it.

He never established a close relationship with the president. Prompted by journalist Bob Woodward to say something nice about his secretary of state, Bush could only come up with: "Powell is a diplomat ... and you've got to have a diplomat."


Powell often spoke of his role in Washington in terms of conflict. In one of his regular informal telephone chats with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, he joked he did not have to go abroad to face a jihad. "There's a jihad against me right here at home," he said, according to a diplomat's account of the conversation. At home, however, Powell kept smiling. Rule No. 2 on his list was: "Get mad, then get over it." In his days as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, he kept another aphorism under glass on his desk. It said: "Never let them see you sweat."

Powell learned by hard experience that going abroad could be fatal for his influence around the Cabinet table. When he was on a tour of Central Asia in December 2001, his principal conservative adversaries, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, tried to stage a policy coup and cut off U.S. ties with Yasser Arafat, declaring him a sponsor of terrorism. The secretary of state had to fly home and fight a rearguard action to reverse the policy.


It was a pyrrhic victory. A few months later, when he was in the Middle East attempting to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks, orders came from the White House to dump a speech he had planned about an international peace conference, lest it commit Washington to more involvement than the administration wanted. He was understandably reluctant to go on any more missions to the region and rarely traveled after that.

Powell was the odd man out from the start. As the most popular public figure in the country among both blacks and whites, he had considered running for the presidency himself in 1996, but his wife, Alma, talked him out of it, fearing that as the nation's first black president he would be a target for assassination. "If you run, I'm gone," she told him flatly.

He agreed to come on board the Bush campaign in 2000 but made clear he was his own man, picking and choosing the events he would attend. At the party convention that year, he railed against Republicans for opposing affirmative action for minorities but supporting affirmative action for corporations through tax loopholes.


As soon as he took up his job at the State Department, it was clear that he would have little real power. The vice president's office was abundant with foreign policy staff who second-guessed almost every element of foreign policy. When Powell suggested that the U.S. would pick up on talks with North Korea where the Clinton administration left off, he was immediately contradicted by the White House and forced into retracting his remarks. Condoleezza Rice's announcement to foreign diplomats in March 2001 that the U.S. would walk away from the Kyoto treaty on global warming was also a slap in his face.

His influence was so diminished that in September 2001, a week before al-Qaida struck, Time magazine ran a cover story on him asking: "Where have you gone, Colin Powell?" The answer was immediately clear in the wake of the attacks, and Powell enjoyed a brief ascendancy in the administration as he was sent out to rally a coalition for war in Afghanistan.

He retained some of that influence even as he was losing the struggle to put brakes on the march to war with Iraq. In August 2002, in a long session with the president and Rice at the White House, he persuaded Bush to go to the U.N. before going to war. However, his leverage ebbed away after Iraq allowed the return of weapons inspectors, extending the diplomatic possibilities and putting a spoke in U.S. war preparations. In February 2003, he was sent to the U.N. to sell the case for an invasion, and he spent long nights with CIA Director George Tenet attempting to weed out all but the most solid intelligence.


For all his efforts, much of what he told the U.N. Security Council at that now infamous session turned out to be groundless. From the moment that became clear, Powell's departure was inevitable. The fact it was delayed until now is a reflection of his insistence on playing the good soldier to the bitter end.

Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

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