Powell won battles, not wars

Published January 9, 2004

WASHINGTON: Shortly before the holidays, just before he underwent surgery for prostate cancer, US Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a forlorn and illuminating interview to the Washington Post , published only in one brief excerpt. In it he explained that there was no matter of principle over which he would resign and depicted tenure as a long mission of retreat and loss.

Powell's elegiac tone is in striking contrast to the reigning triumphalism of official Washington. Bush's popularity has spiked to one of its high points with Saddam Hussein's capture. His campaign operation is ginning up his national security doctrine of "pre- emptive self-defence" (as a Republican TV ad has put it) to pose against the supposedly soft Democrats. And, meanwhile, Powell presents himself as bereft, tragic and noble.

In the full transcript of his interview, posted without fanfare on the state department's website, 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 when I think about these two guys is selfless service".

When Marshall was passed over as commander of the D-Day invasion for Dwight Eisenhower, Powell said that "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 these incidents because he wanted to illustrate his "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 his retirement. For many in Congress and among traditional allies, including Tony Blair, Powell has been seen as the voice of reason, the indispensable partner. His absence as a countervailing force in a second Bush term is hardly imaginable, which will only ensure that his lame duck status will have consequences in a campaign centred 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 precedent over all else. He has won battles but lost the wars. His efforts, along with Blair's, to pursue the UN route on Iraq is now revealed by the former director of state department policy planning, Richard Haass, to have been largely a matter of PR. Haass says national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told him in June 2003: "Save your breath - the president has already decided what he's going to do on this."

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 travelled to North Korea and won apparent concessions from the regime that would open the way for successful negotiations on its nuclear weaponry and proliferation. But Powell's words on Korea fall weightless.

The leader of that private delegation, Charles Pritchard, is not just some errant do-gooder. He is the former chief state department negotiator for Korea, and Powell's own man. He abruptly quit last August because he was stymied by one of Powell's many internal nemeses, the rightwing undersecretary of state, John Bolton (despised, incidentally, in the upper reaches of the British government). Powell may favour a policy on North Korea, but the US has none.

There has been nothing with which Powell has disagreed that he has felt has been worth fighting to the end. He has given his best advice, husbanded his inherent power, and accepted policies - which he's privately told senators have been calamitous - on the diplomatic run-up to the Iraq war and the reconstruction, the Middle East peace process and North Korea. His presence has lent the appearance there could have been another course, when on the important issues that has been proved an illusion.

In Errol Morris's documentary on Robert McNamara, The Fog of War, the former secretary of defence of 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. Powell has now offered his case for failing to resign in the same terms, but making no argument for principle.

His pathos begs 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.-Dawn/The Guardian News Service.

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