The Grownup in the Room

I WAS ABOUT TO WRITE a column titled "Powell, Stay" when the news arrived: Secretary of State Colin Powell had submitted his resignation. For more than a year I had suggested — from time to time — that he resign. Now I was disappointed. Powell, often held up as a role model of American success, has capped off his career as a good soldier with an act of non-responsibility. After having enabled Bush to create a mess in Iraq and then having loyally remained on the team long enough to see Bush through his re-election, Powell is cutting and running, leaving the festering problems in Iraq for someone else to figure out.

Through his tenure at State, Powell cultivated an image as the so-called grownup among the Bushies. He usually lost in the policy tussles with the Rumsfeldites and the neocons. But sensible foreign-policy advocates in Washington argued that it was better to have Powell — supposedly a mature realist — around as a counterweight to the reckless armchair generals. He’s the only thing, they said, keeping the Europeans from totally writing off the United States as a country led only by arrogant yahoos who feast upon power and fart hubris; at least, he’s good for the nation’s image overseas.

But this positioned Powell in an odd role. He supposedly was skeptical about the necessity of invading Iraq. After all, during a February 2001 press conference, he had said that Saddam Hussein "has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction." Yet as the member of the Bush foreign-policy gang with the most credibility, in February 2003 he was sent to pimp for Bush at the United Nations, where he presented the administration’s WMD-based case for war. Virtually all of the key points of his briefing were untrue: Iraq did not have mobile bioweapons factories; satellite photos of so-called decontamination trucks were not evidence of chemical-weapons stockpiles; intelligence intercepts of Iraqi military communications were not proof Iraq was hiding WMD; and there was no demonstrable "sinister nexus" between Saddam Hussein’s regime and al Qaeda. Powell did wow many Americans with his U.N. performance, even though weapons experts questioned his assertions. With this untrue presentation, the reluctant warrior did more to clear the way for Bush’s war than any other administration official. Who cares if he was a grownup? He was fronting for the kindergartners.

It’s a classic Washington story: Stay on the boat, even as it takes a course you consider perilous, so you can retain influence and try to nudge the captain slightly in a better direction. Powell ended up with not much say about the ship’s path. He rode it over the falls. He might have had more overall influence had he broken with Bush and — politely and respectfully — voiced his reservations. And in Bob Woodward’s account of the run-up to the war, Powell is depicted as gently questioning Bush about the war but hardly forcing Bush to re-examine his assumptions and, worse, not pushing Bush to plan effectively for the aftermath of the invasion.

SINCE THE INVASION, POWELL has had a strange relationship with the policy he is supposed to follow. He has more than once contradicted the official White House line. This past January, he said he had "not seen smoking-gun, concrete evidence about the [al Qaeda–Iraq] connection." (This was months before the independent 9/11 -commission concluded that there had been no operational relationship between the two.) And though Dick Cheney said that there was "conclusive evidence" that Hussein had manufactured biological-weapons labs on wheels, Powell said that the administration had been wrong to issue this claim. And Powell acknowledged that the "sourcing" for the intelligence he had cited at the U.N. was "inaccurate and wrong and in some cases deliberately misleading." (This was before the Duelfer report hammered the last nails into the coffin containing Bush’s WMD argument for war.) Yet Powell displayed no indignation in public for having been duped by the intelligence community — which had been duped by Iraqi exiles — which caused Powell to dupe the American and global public. "I am disappointed and I regret it," he said on Meet the Press in May — hardly a cry of anger. He asked for no investigations, no punishments.

But while puncturing holes in Bush’s primary rationale for the war, Powell continued to defend the endeavor, and he was a highly effective spinner. In September, Fox News’ Chris Wallace asked Powell, "John Kerry now says that Iraq is the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time. Is any of that right?" Powell replied, "It is a war that succeeded in removing a dictator — a dictator who was a threat to his own people, a threat to the region and a threat to the international order." A threat to his own people, the region and the international order. What did Powell leave out? A threat to the United States — which supposedly was the main point.

On Meet the Press, Tim Russert asked him, "In light of the fact there’s no direct connection between Iraq and September 11, no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, is it worth 1,000 American lives and 7,000 wounded and injured simply because Saddam was a bad guy?" Powell dissembled away: "The president decided that action was appropriate in Iraq, and he put together a coalition of many nations that joined in that judgment and joined in that fight. Because, one, Saddam Hussein has used weapons of mass destruction in the past. He had an intention. He had a capability. And all of the intelligence available to us and to the international community led us to the conclusion that he had stockpiles, and it was a reasonable conclusion at that time." But that was not so. The Duelfer report noted that Hussein’s WMD capability — at the time of the invasion — was nil. And not all the intelligence before the war had concluded there were WMD stockpiles in Iraq. After all, Powell in 2001 had said Hussein was no WMD threat. But Powell was doing his duty and going along with the White House’s post-invasion effort to re-define the war. He refused to concede that he and Bush had misrepresented the case for war, noting, in a low-key manner, that he was "disappointed" and "not pleased" by the misleading intelligence on Iraq’s WMD.

Still, after the election, I wanted to see Powell remain in the job. It was a matter of justice and practicality. An appropriate punishment for having covered for Bush would have been four more years of cleaning up after the president. And if Powell had stayed at State, that would have prevented Bush from placing someone worse in that post. As it is, Bush has tapped Condoleezza Rice, who — after Bush and Cheney — is the person most responsible for the assorted policy blunders in Iraq.

About a week before Powell announced his resignation, a fellow who has worked for him for years told me he expected Powell to keep the job. Powell, he reported, was looking for one big foreign-policy score before retreating. Maybe a breakthrough in the Middle East or North Korea; perhaps progress in Darfur. "He doesn’t want to be remembered mostly for that U.N. presentation," this Powell colleague said. But Powell will be. He should be. That is his legacy. A pitchman is responsible for what he pitches, and "I was only following orders" is no excuse for a soldier, good or otherwise.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >