Look Back in Failure

Colin Powell, we knew ye too well


Colin Powell leaves his highest-ranking, and possibly last, government post this month. He came in as the unimpeachable Serious Adult of Bush's team, trailing mostly respect and adulation. As the star of the early W. days, Powell was considered a fair threat to outshine his boss. David Plotz at Slate summed up well those qualities that allowed the idea of Powell to capture political punditry and the American people so strongly—prior to his now-ending stint as Bush's secretary of state:

Powell is confirmation of the American dream: A black man from modest circumstances can do anything if he works hard enough. He affirmed idealism about the U.S. military: It is the meritocratic, colorblind institution it claims to be. And he is a role model and champion of hard work, discipline, honesty, loyalty, patriotism, and good humor.

Powell walks away now as a man who, at best, survived, and kept a great reputation for commanding a room with suitable military bearing and gravitas. And that's about all he has going for him—that and rumors, always denied (apparently at his wife Alma's overpowering insistence) that he'll be the GOP's Great Black Hope in some (always future) election. Most recently, U.S. News and World Report has been talking him up as Jeb's running mate in the Bush III administration to launch right on schedule in 2008.

Such fantasies seem based on remembrances of Powell past, not the Powell of the past four years, the feckless alleged "opposition voice" in Bushite foreign policy who ended up shamed as he stood up to take the public heat for explaining why we did indeed have to go to war with Iraq. Powell spoke authoritatively of sinister taped conversations, of hard-to-interpret but menacing aerial shots, of Iraq-Al Qaeda links (in Kurdish parts of Iraq) and chemical weapon stockpiles and aluminum tubes, many excuses why a war against Iraq was necessary and proper. Alas, none of his earnestly presented reasons have turned out to be true or accurate.

His final and most enduring legacy is that ongoing disaster of a war he stood up for before the eyes of the world—one which even he has recently told the President, according to former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman, "We're losing."

Despite Powell's reputation for having silently fumed in opposition, this war was sold most decisively by his own pathetic performance before a U.N. that, even with his series of misleading ominous "facts," he could not sway to cooperate with U.S. policy. He was trading on his own reputation as the reluctant warrior. (My favorite statement of what came to be known as the "Powell Doctrine" of fighting only when everyone is in line and our power is overwhelming came from Powell in 1995 to Henry Louis Gates Jr.: "I believe in the bully's way of going to war. 'I'm on the street corner, I got my gun, I got my blade, I'ma kick yo' ass.'") He was no ideologue, the combination of his previous stances and the U.N. speech implied, but a man driven by cold facts to rip out the last plank that Iraq doves had to stand on. But, as James Mann wrote in his 2004 book Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet, "For American diplomacy, the six-month venture at the United Nations was a remarkable failure. The Bush administration had come into office promising to give new emphasis to ties with Mexico and, more generally, to Latin America, but had failed to win the backing of either Mexico or Chile… Russia stood with France and Germany in opposition to the United States. Powell and [Deputy Secretary of State Richard] Armitage had labored to develop strong relations with Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf, but Pakistan wouldn't come out in support of the American position either."

That whole sorry debacle is not the picture of a great diplomat, a great politician, or a strong and principled man. It is one of a careerist. A very good one, at that—he's certainly had quite a career, hitting all the high points a military man and diplomat of his generation could hit.

Still, where has it left the country he served? With our dollar weak, our debt ballooning, and our armed forces overextended, diplomacy and an ability to win the aid and even sometimes the affection of the rest of the world will be necessary for the U.S. to maintain itself as the hyperpower—a self-image the current administration has no apparent desire to abandon.

Even the most strident France-basher would have a hard time blaming America's strained international relations entirely on the cheese-eating perfidy of our western allies. Nor are they entirely the fault of the State Department—though promoting strong international relations while pursuing American interests is clearly in the job description of a Secretary of State, and Powell has failed to do this.

But it's Powell's particular genius to stroll intact through fields of failure. He leaves a literally diminished State Department, with the Immigration and Naturalization Service abolished and most visa-issuing duties transferred to the Department of Homeland Security; it's not something Powell will be bragging on in his r?sum?, but who would be so churlish as to fault him for this important reorganization of national bureaucracies? Similarly, it seems unimpressive that a Secretary of State should sit by and allow the Defense Department to do the heavy lifting in statecraft; but hey, that just shows that Powell is a team player (the Powell mode of team playing being more about pleasing the front office than acting in the best interests of the team).

Whatever abstract value Powell had as the administration's voice of caution, his only real service came in the form of publicly swallowing his doubts. Notice his final gift to the president and his supposed neocon enemies: his declaration that—shades of his U.N. speech—"I have seen some information that would suggest that [Iranians] have been actively working on delivery systems… You don't have a weapon until you put it in something that can deliver a weapon… There is no doubt in my mind…they have been interested in a nuclear weapon that has utility, meaning that it is something they would be able to deliver, not just something that sits there." Powell's real legacy is to have been the Bush administration's human sacrifice, a perfunctory gesture at careful and humble foreign policy on the march to a situation where the United States stage-manages tense relations between China and Taiwan and Israel and the nascent Palestinian state, handles threats from Iran and North Korea, and guarantees the peace, prosperity, and security of the whole freakin' planet.

Powell's vision for that last idea was presented in a valedictory piece he wrote in the Jan./Feb. issue of Foreign Policy. It's as mushy-brained and expansionist as any neocon pipe dream of bringing democracy to the world. Powell's is, in hubristic terms if not in blood, perhaps even more expansionist. The Bush administration whose diplomacy he headed, Powell wrote, "see[s] development, democracy, and security as inextricably linked," and it is part of our duty to help the world "work hard and wisely on economic development," indeed to "eradicate poverty" worldwide, with a plan to bring the entire world up to economic and political snuff through foreign aid and development programs, "phase by phase, one country at a time, for as long as it takes." It's a mission big enough that it could win the hearts of "national greatness" conservatives who feel a need to attach themselves to this Republican-of-convenience with dreams of his pre-Bush public approval ratings.

Powell hasn't left us in a good position to carry out such grandiose maneuverings, for some reasons that he bears responsibility for, and some he doesn't. But overall he leaves his nation with little reason to regret his passing from the public scene. His departure will be as dry-eyed, and rightly so, as U.S. News and World Report notes his own plans to go have been. "Be ready to leave for good on the last day. No dillydallying… No sentimental reminiscing with the staff. 'Get the car packed up in advance,' he said. 'After the parade, hand over the flag and get into the car and drive. And don't look back.'" If Colin Powell's public reputation is to have a promising future, the less looking back, the better for him.