April 28, 2004
Being a moderate in an extremist administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell wants the impossible: a reputation for both integrity and loyalty.
The latest Powell wiggle emanates from the controversies in Bob Woodward's recent book, "Plan of Attack." It appears that Powell used Woodward to deliver several messages, including his questions about going to war in Iraq, his efforts to mobilize opposition -- domestic and foreign -- against his enemies and his never-ending antipathy toward Vice President Dick Cheney.
The book also says (though Powell vehemently denies it) that the secretary of state was out of the loop and was told about the final decision to go to war in Iraq only after it had made the rounds among President Bush's inner circle, including even the Saudi ambassador.
As has happened on numerous occasions, Powell airs his disagreements with Bush and crew through impolitic press statements and candid book interviews. Shortly thereafter, he ritualistically rebuts these views in the media once they have gotten on the record.
It is Washington theater at its best.
The problem is that what Powell seems to believe is cunning and clever, in the end, comes across as vacillating and duplicitous. Was he for the war, as he passionately argued at the United Nations -- false intelligence notwithstanding -- or was he against it, as he has told Woodward and others? Ultimately, he is left looking disingenuous.
Woodward says Powell referred to Cheney's posse of neoconservatives as a "Gestapo office." National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice went to the airwaves to argue that Powell and Cheney are actually friendly, but her version stretches the imagination.
The Powell-Cheney imbroglio is not only noted in Woodward's book and on the Washington street, but even in Powell's own words: In his autobiography, "My American Journey," he writes with measurable bitterness of being dressed-down by then Secretary of Defense Cheney after attending his first high-level White House meeting as the new head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At a personal and political level, there is no love lost between the two.
After the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, Powell stated that he perhaps would have thought differently about going to war in Iraq if he had known there were no such weapons. He was later forced to clarify those remarks so as to not imply that he was against the president, and that he did fully support the decision to go to war in Iraq.
But the real questions surrounding Powell is where does he draw the line, and based on what moral or ethical principles?
Bush seems to listen only to those who agree with his simplistic and airy notions of the world, which are at odds with Powell's multilateral perspectives. In the eight long months prior to Sept. 11, Powell lost battle after battle on foreign policy yet remained in his seat (surrounded by Cheney's henchmen to ensure that he was contained). After the terrorist attacks, Powell found more allies outside the administration -- indeed, outside the United States -- than within.
His victories have been few; his losses legendary. He has had to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous foreign affairs.
Yet at no point did he resign.
It is difficult to know where Powell finally stands. One is still left to believe that his convictions are malleable and fall far short of steadfast principles. He has been shrewd enough to find avenues for his rebellious ideas, and these same avenues allow him not to be held completely accountable for his contradictory behavior.
But as the door closes on his tenure, Powell emerges more and more as a tragic figure who ultimately places expediency and ambition over convictions and principles.
Clarence Lusane is an assistant professor in the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several works, including "Hitler's Black Victims" (Routledge Press, 2002). He can be reached at email@example.com.