In July 2003, President George W. Bush made a five-nation tour of Africa. The purpose of the visit was to cast American foreign policy in a gentler light after the diplomatic donnybrook over Iraq -- by, among other things, showcasing the Bush administration's seriousness about combating Africa's AIDS pandemic.
But Africa didn't have the president's undivided attention. En route from Washington to Dakar, Senegal, Secretary of State Colin Powell met privately with Bush aboard Air Force One to discuss North Korea. It was a fraught subject for Powell. Shortly after taking office in 2001, he had told reporters that Bush planned to continue the Clinton administration's policy of engagement, only to be forced by the White House to eat his words the very next day: Any policy that carried the taint of Clintonism was to be reversed, and Bush did not do business with evil regimes. The president would later name North Korea a member of the "axis of evil," and just a month before his Africa trip, he had given a speech reaffirming his hard line toward Pyongyang.
For two years, Powell had worked behind the scenes to ease tensions with North Korea and keep the channels of communication open -- going so far as to hold a brief one-on-one discussion with his North Korean counterpart during an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Brunei in July 2002, a meeting said to be impromptu but that actually was not.
Now, with postwar Iraq spinning out of control and North Korea apparently proceeding with its nuclear-weapons program, Powell felt the time had come to try to get Bush to take a more constructive approach to the simmering crisis in East Asia. During the meeting on Air Force One, Powell made the case for opening bilateral talks with Pyongyang. "You know, we probably ought to have some direct contact with the North Koreans," Powell told the president. Surprisingly, Bush agreed, marking a major about-face for a president not known for about-faces and seemingly paving the way for a bold initiative to help ease the standoff with North Korea. Bush's decision also handed Powell what looked to be a rare and important victory over administration hawks.
But seven weeks later, when six-party talks on North Korea began in Beijing, James Kelly, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the lead U.S. negotiator, went with instructions not to enter into bilateral discussions. During a break in the negotiations, the North Koreans tried to ask Kelly -- technically accountable only to Powell and the president -- a few questions directly. Kelly followed his instructions and refused to respond.
Colin Powell had lost another one.
When Powell was appointed secretary of state, such was his stature at home and abroad that he was widely expected to be the new administration's vicar of foreign policy. Three years on, he finds himself the fig leaf of that foreign policy -- the moderate front man for an administration that has been anything but moderate in its statecraft. On almost every critical issue -- the Kyoto Protocol, the future of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Middle East peace process, North Korea, and, of course, Iraq -- Powell has been the odd man out, his influence minimal to nonexistent.
That's obvious in Washington, where Powell's vanishing act is a source of curiosity and not a little sadness. More importantly, it's obvious overseas; one U.S. official says French President Jacques Chirac recently told him, "When Powell agrees with us, we know it doesn't mean anything." Having hoped to model his tenure on that of another military man turned diplomat, George Marshall, who as Harry Truman's secretary of state devised the courageous plan to rebuild Europe in the aftermath of World War II, Powell now evokes comparisons to Warren Christopher and William Rogers, two of the least effective secretaries of state in recent memory.
Outgunned, undermined, and frequently humiliated, Powell is expected to step down next January whether or not Bush wins a second term. His unhappiness is an open secret. One former National Security Council staffer recalls being told by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage back in 2002 that both Armitage and Powell wanted out but "can't leave because it would hurt the president." Powell has chosen to remain associated with a foreign policy that has been calamitous in its application, if not necessarily its goals. The irony, of course, is that it is a foreign policy over which Powell has exercised little influence. But resigning out of pique or principle is not the Powell way, and his willingness to conspire in his own diminishment is entirely in character: As an Army staffer during the Vietnam War, he failed to investigate reports of the My Lai massacre; as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger's military attaché in the 1980s, he put aside his own objections and helped funnel weapons to Iran as part of the arms-for-hostages deal.
How did it all go so wrong for Powell? In part, he has fallen victim to the wrath of Dick Cheney; having soured on Powell since their days in the first Bush administration, and having witnessed firsthand Powell's bureaucratic skills (he is one of the all-time great Washington operators), the vice president set out to kneecap him this time around, usurping his authority, filling key positions with officials hostile to Powell, and otherwise maneuvering to thwart his influence. Powell has had problems, too, with other key administration figures, not least Bush himself; they have little personal chemistry and see the world through very different lenses.
His troubles with Cheney and Bush have rendered Powell a sympathetic figure outside conservative circles -- a tragic figure in the minds of many liberals. In fact, though, Powell has mostly been hobbled by his own liabilities. He came into office without a strong and specific idea either of what he wanted to accomplish at Foggy Bottom or of what America's role in the world should be. At heart he is a functionary, not a visionary, a doer rather than a thinker. Unfortunately for him, he is serving a president who likes to throw bombs (the metaphoric and occasionally the literal kind) at a moment in history when big thinking and bold action have been required. The neocons, for better or worse, had a vision, and something usually trumps nothing.
As his tenure winds down, Powell is finally getting a George Marshall moment, but probably not quite of the sort he had in mind. On July 1, the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq becomes the U.S. Embassy, and responsibility for administering Iraq passes from the Pentagon to the State Department, which was initially shut out of all postwar operations by the Pentagon and by Cheney. Denied the opportunity to conceive a reconstruction plan à la Marshall, Powell will now spend his last months in office trying to tidy up the mess that his antagonists in the administration made.
The decision to wage preemptive war in order to depose Saddam Hussein and trigger a democratic revolution across the Arab world has shaken the international system to its core and will have repercussions for decades to come. Powell views every military engagement through the dark prism of his Vietnam experience and believes that war should always be a last resort. Thus, his friends and associates are unanimous in their view that this was not the policy he would have chosen had the decision been his -- certainly not while U.S. troops were still engaged in Afghanistan, and certainly not at the cost, in terms of American credibility, that was ultimately incurred. "It is not something he would have advocated," says one longtime colleague who, like most people interviewed for this story, insisted on anonymity out of respect for Powell, whom many in Washington still revere on a personal level.
And Powell dropped plenty of hints in public that he was unconvinced of the need to take out Hussein in the wake of September 11. Two months after the terrorist attacks, he was profiled by Bill Keller in The New York Times Magazine. By then it was already known that Iraq had been discussed by Bush and his senior advisers during a meeting at Camp David the weekend after 9-11, with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz pushing the idea of regime change. Speaking to Keller a few days later, Powell said cooler heads had prevailed and seemed to take credit for helping keep Iraq on the back burner. "Iraq isn't going anywhere," he said. "It's in a fairly weakened state. It's doing some things we don't like. We'll continue to contain it." Asked a month later by Keller if he had changed his thinking about Iraq, Powell said had not.
But there are also indications that, even then, Powell had a sense of where events were heading and was, true to form, prepared to hold his nose and make himself useful. One source tells the Prospect that in the fall of 2001, Powell asked State Department officials for ideas on devising an inspections regime for Iraq that Hussein would reject as overly intrusive. The State Department was obviously not going to administer any future inspections, but because the United States held most of the intelligence about Iraq's alleged weapons programs, it was in a position to significantly influence the form any future inspections might take. Powell's request was thus not an idle one, nor was it seen as an innocent one; in fact, it apparently met with some internal resistance and was not pursued further. (Powell declined to be interviewed for this article, and, despite repeated requests, the State Department never made a spokesperson available to the Prospect.)
Eight months later, of course, Iraq was off the back burner. Powell continued to voice reservations. When Brent Scowcroft, who served as national-security adviser in the first Bush administration, wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in August 2002 warning that an invasion of Iraq would be a costly diversion from the war on terrorism and could destabilize the Middle East, Powell called his former colleague to thank him. Likewise, one senior official on Capitol Hill says that when Powell told him that Bush had agreed to work through the United Nations to confront Iraq, Powell commented: "We get in there, we start negotiations. So we don't go war; how bad can that be?"
Through September and October of 2002, Powell marshaled support for a UN resolution setting out strict guidelines for new weapons inspections in Iraq and promising harsh penalties if Baghdad failed to cooperate. After weeks of haggling, Powell finally got France to go along, and Resolution 1441 was approved by the Security Council 15 to 0 on November 8. Inspections, led by Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, began a month later. Almost immediately, however, administration officials went out of their way to discredit the process; even Powell expressed skepticism and impatience. And by then, of course, U.S. troops were already pouring into the Persian Gulf region. In late January, Blix and ElBaradei reported to the Security Council that they were getting only limited cooperation from Iraq, at which point the administration concluded it had all the justification it needed for war and decided to push, at Powell's behest, for a second resolution authorizing force.
According to The New York Times' Todd Purdum, Powell met with Bush in the Oval Office in mid-January and was told, "We're going to put our case down. I want you to do it. I have confidence in your ability, and people will listen when you speak." Powell was indeed the best face the administration could put forward, and though his February 5 presentation to the Security Council, prepared for him by the vice president's office and the National Security Council staff, failed to win over the French, Germans, or Russians, it clinched the case for war in the minds of many Americans. It has been referred to as Powell's Adlai Stevenson moment. Like Stevenson during the Cuban missile crisis, Powell was seen as the house dove, and because of his perceived dovishness, the words he delivered carried substantial weight.
No sooner did Powell speak than his aides let it be known -- Powell and the people around him are masters of the well-timed leak -- that prior to his UN appearance, the secretary of state had spent a number of hours at CIA headquarters sifting through the evidence he had been asked to present and had discarded reams of it, frustrated with the inadequate sourcing and selective use of intelligence. Among the discarded portions of the script: the now infamous allegation that Iraq had sought to purchase yellowcake uranium from Niger.
However, it appears that there was only so much cold water Powell was prepared to throw on the war planning. Analysts in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), an internal clearinghouse for classified information, were deeply troubled by many of the claims being made by the White House concerning Iraq's weapons programs (and were ultimately vindicated). As has been widely reported, for instance, it was the INR that debunked the claim that Iraq's attempted procurement of high-strength aluminum tubing was proof of a plan to enrich uranium. After exhaustive research that drew on a number of expert sources, INR officials concluded that the tubes the Iraqis had purchased were incompatible with uranium enrichment.
But despite the expertise available to him in his own building, when Powell went to CIA headquarters, the Prospect has learned, he brought no one from the INR -- no one with the kind of knowledge that might have steered him away from other questionable claims -- and was accompanied only by Lawrence Wilkerson, his chief of staff. INR officials were sent copies of Powell's speech a few days before he went to the UN. Suggestions and corrections, scrawled in the margins, were delivered to Powell while he was at CIA headquarters. Included among the comments: the INR's findings concerning the aluminum tubes. The caution flags, however, were ignored. When the secretary of state addressed the Security Council, he not only included the aluminum-tubes claim but made several other assertions that have since proven to be inaccurate. A performance that looked to be the high point of Powell's illustrious career has now been thoroughly discredited and sits as an indelible stain on his record.
(Carl Ford, who was the assistant secretary of state in charge of the INR during this period, declined to be interviewed. Ford left the State Department last year. He is said to have told colleagues that he was retiring in part because he didn't relish the prospect of having to testify before Congress and share information that might be damaging to Powell.)
Powell's reward for doing the soldierly thing was a slap in the face to his department. On January 20, just after Powell met with Bush and agreed to go before the United Nations, Bush signed National Security Directive No. 24, which gave the Pentagon responsibility for administering postwar Iraq. In retrospect, it was a tragic decision, one that needlessly complicated efforts to stabilize Iraq and that has undoubtedly cost many American soldiers their lives. In the months prior to war, the State Department's Future of Iraq Project, headed by Tom Warrick of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, conducted an exhaustive inquiry into what would be needed to stitch Iraq back together. Warrick's group, which ultimately produced a 13-volume, 2,500-page report, outlined a postwar scenario that has proven to be remarkably prescient. Among other things, it warned of a guerilla insurgency following Hussein's downfall, advised against disbanding the Iraqi army, and emphasized the need to restore basic services like water and electricity as quickly as possible to keep Iraqis from souring on the occupation.
All this was ignored. It was ignored because the bureau was viewed by neocons inside and outside the administration as a bastion of Arabist footdraggers committed to preserving the status quo in the Middle East. It was ignored because the State Department took a dim view of Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress and darling of Cheney and the neocons, and refused to make him the centerpiece of its post-Hussein planning. And it was ignored because the Future of Iraq Project foretold a long and costly occupation, which Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld didn't want to hear. (They were convinced, based partly on Chalabi's assurances, that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators and would be able to go home early.)
Initially, the State Department was almost completely frozen out of postwar operations. In March 2003, Rumsfeld pulled aside retired Lieutenant General Jay Garner, who had been tapped to lead the reconstruction effort, and told him that Warrick, then preparing to depart for Baghdad, had to be taken off Garner's team and would not be allowed to go to Iraq. Rumsfeld told Garner that the order "came from such a high level I can't say 'no.'" (It is universally assumed that the order came from Cheney.) And Richard Armitage has told associates that when Wolfowitz visited Baghdad last October -- a visit marred by a rocket attack on Wolfowitz's hotel -- the State Department was kept in the dark about his itinerary.
Powell's problems in the Bush administration start at the very top, with Bush himself. Though Powell was never promised the secretary of state's job, his appointment was a foregone conclusion, and his one interview with Bush was short, perfunctory, and pretty much content-free. "It didn't go into depth," says one Powell associate.
The relationship was built on an unsound foundation in that Powell was far more popular than Bush, and time has not closed the personal divide. One senior official from the first Bush administration says the president "respects Powell and listens to him, but they just don't click." A member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee claims the relationship is actually worse than that, saying: "The president doesn't like him very much. If Powell threatened to resign, the president would say, 'Go to hell.'"
The lack of any real bond has chilled the lines of communication between the two. The North Korea discussion that took place aboard Air Force One was not an isolated incident: Powell has told friends of multiple meetings with Bush in which he has left believing they were on the same page only to see the president later ignore his advice or do the opposite. "He'll feel that he's gotten his point across and will go back to the State Department and it will all fall apart," says a former colleague.
Occasions for agreement are rare because Powell and Bush simply have very different perspectives on how best to promote the national interest. Surely the most authentic expression of the president's worldview came at Camp David the weekend after 9-11. "At some point," he declared, "we may be the only ones left. That's OK with me. We are America." Powell, by contrast, believes coalitions and alliances are a necessity, not a luxury, and he is known to be deeply uncomfortable with the hegemonic-messianic impulses that have guided Bush's thinking since 9-11.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has compounded Powell's troubles. Over the last three years, Rice has been the recipient of mostly glowing press coverage. She is a compelling figure, an African American woman serving as the president's closest foreign-policy aide and forging an almost familial relationship with him. But the gauzy tributes overlook (or ignore) one fairly significant detail: By most accounts, Rice has done a poor job.
She was never going to have an easy time of it. Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell all brought enormous stature and experience to the administration; Rice did not, yet she was thrust into a job that required her to serve as their referee and the honest broker among them. She has failed miserably in this role. She is too much of a partisan in policy debates, too eager to tell the president what he wants to hear and for her own views to prevail. As a result, she often fails to present Bush with a full menu of choices. "One thing a good national-security adviser does is make sure the president receives as many views as possible," says one former high-ranking U.S. diplomat. "But we now have a president who is not, on a number of issues, being given a chance to think through all the options."
It seems clear that Powell saw Rice as a potential threat early on. During the presidential transition, Powell held a meeting at his Virginia home to discuss North Korea with several mid-level Clinton administration officials. Rice also attended, flying in from Texas to take part. During the discussion, Powell made clear his support for the Clinton approach: engaging with Pyongyang and proceeding with the 1994 Agreed Framework, in which North Korea had agreed to cease its nuclear-weapons program in exchange for two light-water reactors and fuel-oil shipments. As one participant recalls, Powell completely dominated the session and seemed to go out of his way to cast developments in a positive light. "I had a sense that he did this deliberately, that he stepped out and steered the conversation in this direction rather than take a chance on where it might go with [Rice]," recalls one participant. "If she disagreed, he didn't give her a chance."
A senior official from the first Bush administration who knows both Rice and Powell well thinks her closeness to the president is the crux of the problem between her and Powell. "The president relies on her a lot, and I think she probably sees her role more as taking care of the president than running the [National Security Council] system," he says. More often than not, he adds, Rice is allied with Cheney and Rumsfeld, and this, combined with Bush's black-and-white perspective and preference for action over talk, has put Powell at a severe disadvantage. Asked if Powell feels that Rice has done an inadequate job of representing his views to Bush, the same official says, "I think Colin probably thinks that on balance that's true."
Rumsfeld, of course, has been a constant irritant for Powell. The two have known each other since the Nixon administration, when Rumsfeld was an economic adviser and Powell a White House fellow. Though they are now of equal rank, Rumsfeld still treats Powell as a subordinate. Rumsfeld hasn't hesitated to intrude on Powell's turf, either publicly -- with his gibe about "old Europe" in the run-up to the Iraq War -- or privately. Former State Department officials tell the Prospect that Rumsfeld has a habit of sending Powell brusque, often demeaning memos laying out the Pentagon's position on foreign-policy issues and essentially instructing the secretary of state how to go about his job. It is also widely believed that Newt Gingrich's scabrous attacks on the State Department last year -- first in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, later in an article for Foreign Policy -- were done with the approval of Rumsfeld, to whom the former House speaker is an adviser.
Rumsfeld, however, would not exist but for Cheney, and the vice president, the wizard behind the curtain of this White House, has been the main source of Powell's misery. Bob Woodward has written that Cheney was incensed by the 25-minute acceptance speech Powell gave when Bush announced his nomination as secretary of state, and the relationship has not improved with time. When Powell made his ill-fated attempt at Middle East shuttle diplomacy in April 2002, he was subjected to a barrage of second-guessing back in Washington, most of it emanating from the vice president's office.
Ironically, it was Cheney, who as secretary of defense in the first Bush administration, gave Powell the biggest break of his career, bypassing a number of more senior four-star generals and naming the native New Yorker chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989. Powell was no stranger to the executive branch; there was his stint in the Nixon White House, and he had gone on to serve in the Reagan administration, first as an aide to Weinberger, later as national-security adviser. During these tours of duty, he had proven himself to be a non-ideologue with a reverential attitude toward power and those who knew how to accumulate and use it. As military historian Eliot Cohen puts it, Powell was "fascinated by government as a game, learned its rules swiftly, and soon mastered it." When it came to core convictions, though, Powell had one: that the country's civilian leadership had failed the military badly during the Vietnam conflict and could never be allowed to do so again.
Cheney, as curt and aloof then as he is now, ran the Defense Department with an iron fist. Nonetheless, Powell managed to find room to maneuver. The Goldwater-Nichols Defense Department Reorganization Act of 1986 had made the chairman of the Joint Chiefs the principal military adviser to both the president and the secretary of defense, entitled to bypass the service chiefs, and Powell took full advantage of these augmented powers. Recognizing that the end of the Cold War would substantially alter U.S. military requirements, Powell took it upon himself to draft a plan for restructuring the armed forces. His diagnostic skills were better than his prescriptive ones: The strategy he came up with, called the "Base Force" plan, was notable chiefly for its timidity: Its main planks consisted of a 25-percent reduction in troops and some consolidation of major commands.
But what Powell lacked in vision he more than made up for in office savvy. He reduced the power and influence of the service chiefs in ways both symbolic and substantive. For instance, sessions of the joint chiefs took place in his office rather than the "tank," where they were normally held, and staff officers and note taking were both forbidden. Powell also seized control of the flow of information to Cheney. Previously, staff officers had briefed the secretary of defense and his aides on operational issues and other matters; now, Powell himself did all the briefing.
After George Bush Senior's defeat in 1992, Powell remained as Joint Chiefs chairman through nine tumultuous months in the Clinton White House. Two of the biggest issues facing the new administration were gays in the military and the crisis in the Balkans, and in both instances Powell expressed his opinions with a vigor that struck many observers as out of bounds for the president's chief military adviser -- verging, even, on insubordination.
As a candidate, Clinton had promised to end the military's ban on homosexuals, and the issue was thrust to the top of the agenda the moment he took office. The brass opposed lifting the ban, and Powell went out of his way to throw obstacles in Clinton's path; it was clear to the White House that he and the other chiefs were prepared to wage a battle royal on Capitol Hill to prevent the integration of gays into the military. Indeed, nine days before Clinton took office, Powell gave an address at the Naval Academy and urged midshipmen to resign in protest if they felt they couldn't abide the change in policy.
Troubling as that episode was, it paled in comparison to Powell's conduct in the debate over Bosnia. Powell had successfully encouraged the first President Bush not to intervene in the Balkans. During the 1992 campaign, he went public with his opposition, writing an op-ed for The New York Times lauding Bush's refusal to commit troops. When Clinton took over, he wanted military options concerning Bosnia; Powell gave him a litany of reasons not to get involved (including inflated troop estimates). "He did not frame the issue in a way that made it possible for the president to do what he wanted," says former Air Force Chief of Staff General Merrill "Tony" McPeak, who served under Powell from 1990 to 1993. "Instead, he said, 'Here's Option A, it is really stupid. Here's Option B, it is dumber than dirt.' It wasn't disloyalty, it wasn't because it was a Democratic administration; it was just because it was Powell's view. But when the president asks you to do something, you sit down and figure out how to do it."
Military historian Richard Kohn, who has written extensively and critically of Powell (but thinks his presence in the Bush administration has been a minor blessing), believes that because of Powell's bureaucratic skills, Cheney and others around Bush felt it necessary to tie him up and put him in a box. "They knew the book on Powell and set out to isolate him," Kohn said. Certainly, one reason Rumsfeld was given the Defense Department was to act as a counterweight to Powell and ensure that the former general's influence there was kept in check (Powell had pushed for Tom Ridge). When Wolfowitz, who has a long history of butting heads with Powell, was asked why he took the No. 2 spot at the Pentagon, he gave a one-word answer: "Powell."
Then there is John Bolton, the outspoken hard-liner currently serving as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. He was appointed at Cheney's behest, presumably to serve as the vice president's eyes and ears at the State Department. Powell vehemently opposed Bolton and indicated to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he hoped to see the nomination killed. That didn't happen, and Bolton has proven to be a highly disruptive presence at Foggy Bottom -- needlessly complicating diplomatic efforts with his bombastic rhetoric, bypassing normal State Department procedures, even openly defying Powell. (In 2001, Powell mandated that INR analysts were to take part in staff meetings of all State Department senior policy officials. After complying for a few days, Bolton decided, in the words of one aide, that he wanted to "keep it in the family" and banished his INR liaison, an analyst named Greg Thielmann.)
Powell's tenure at Foggy Bottom has not been completely devoid of successes. He negotiated a peaceful, face-saving resolution to the crisis with China over a downed American spy plane in April 2001. He played a key role in back-channel discussions that led to Libya's recent decision to give up its nuclear ambitions and cooperate in the fight against terrorism. He was also instrumental in persuading Bush to dispatch U.S. Marines to Liberia last summer and to earmark more money for Africa's AIDS crisis. And he has proven to be an enormously popular figure within the State Department, giving the embattled institution a much-needed morale boost (by, among other things, surrounding himself with career diplomats rather than political appointees).
But measured against the expectations that greeted his appointment, these are puny achievements. What most troubles people who know Powell is the passivity with which he has endured the many setbacks and slights. For instance, there is no evidence that he protested the decision to put the Pentagon in charge of administering postwar Iraq; no evidence, either, that he tried to intervene when Warrick was barred from going to Baghdad, or that he spoke up when the Pentagon began blocking other State Department appointees to the Coalition Provisional Authority. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz have repeatedly muscled in on Powell's turf, Bolton has repeatedly subverted his authority. But if Powell has voiced any displeasure to the president, or even to Rice, it is the best-kept secret in Washington. "I don't think he's fighting, and I can't understand why," says one high-ranking official from the first Bush administration.
Actually, there is an explanation for Powell's inaction, and it has little to do with his uniformed past. True, he is a military man, accustomed to falling in line; as Caspar Weinberger once put it, "Colin is essentially a good soldier. He does his duty and carries out orders." Habits formed over a lifetime are hard to break, and Powell's natural inclination is to swallow his differences and salute. Yet it's the fact that those differences are never strongly held that mainly accounts for Powell's inaction. He has opinions but few, if any, real convictions, and there's no ground he won't cede in the interest of expediency and ambition. Says Richard Kohn, "He's a man with no core of ideology, vision, or principle other than to serve the United States."
The only times in his career that Powell put up a fight were over gays in the military and over Bosnia. He fought on those because they fed exactly into what has been his one true cause: protecting his beloved Army, from both potential Vietnams and from wooly-eyed civilians generally. But even then, the real story was not so much what he did as what he didn't do. These were cases in which he feared the country's civilian leadership was once again screwing things up for the Army, yet he didn't resign in protest -- even as he urged others to do just that. For Powell, even the Powell doctrine proved expendable. The Bush administration has turned the doctrine on its head in Iraq -- by waging preemptive war, by using less than overwhelming force, and by placing U.S. troops in a hostile environment with neither a plausible postwar plan nor an exit strategy. That Powell was complicit in this effort says pretty much all there is to say about his attachment to principle.
If there's a tragedy here, it's one mostly of Powell's making. For all their success in cutting Powell down to size, Cheney and company have not altered one basic fact: Bush needs Powell more than Powell needs him. Powell could have crippled the administration had he quit at any point in the last two years. Given his immense clout, he was in a position to raise important doubts about the administration's course on Iraq. In choosing not to confront Bush with his concerns, he not only failed his president; he failed the country. But even if Powell had spoken up, it's not clear what he could have offered Bush beyond procedural advice and critique. When Bill Keller asked him to describe his worldview back in the fall of 2001, the secretary of state answered with "an articulate and utterly uncontroversial discourse" that Keller aptly described as "uplifting nonpartisan boilerplate." Powell will get you where you want to go, but someone else has to provide the road map.
On the most critical issue confronting the United States, the rise of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, Powell helped Bush implement a course of action conceived by the neocons. What he didn't do -- because he couldn't -- was propose a different course of action that might have led to the same goal of political reform in the Arab world but that wouldn't have involved waging an unpopular war on a trumped-up pretext, a war that has extracted an enormous cost in American lives and American prestige. Bush, by most accounts, is an impressionable sort -- "malleable," as one Bush family friend uncharitably puts it -- but selling him on an alternative vision would have required actually having one, which Powell plainly did not. That alternative vision -- hardheaded about the dangers facing the U.S. but aware that the war on terrorism can't be won without international cooperation -- will have to wait for a Kerry administration.
Michael Steinberger is a Prospect senior correspondent.