The Loyal Soldier, On His Way Out
Sidney Blumenthal has a good piece in today’s Guardian wherein he laments that despite the good PR achieved by having a Colin Powell as a Secretary of State, in the end result Powell is nothing more than a prop to the Bush Administration. Rather than fight battles on principle and threaten to resign if he is nothing more than a prop, Blumenthal notes that Powell disdains exactly such an approach, feeling that it is his job to express what he thinks, lose the arguments, and still carry out and support policies that he knows are damaging time and again.
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.
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'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 centered 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."
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.
These are arguments that some of you have made here when assessing Powell’s relative strength inside the Administration. For those of us who have been hoping that Powell was the voice of reason in a regime of unbending zealots, such comments from Powell indicate that we have been hoping for him to be a true statesman and notable Secretary of State all in vain. He isn’t. And what’s more, after seeing some of these comments, in selecting Powell for the job in the first place, it appears that Bush and Cheney knew exactly what they were getting: a loyal soldier with a great PR quotient who would put a nice gloss on what was a foreign policy of force first and diplomacy never, without ever having to worry about a face-down with that loyal soldier.