The tragedy of Colin Powell.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Feb. 19 2004 12:56 PM

The Tragedy of Colin Powell

How the Bush presidency destroyed him.

What becomes a legend most? Not this
What becomes a legend most? Not this

Is Colin Powell melting down?

It's hard to come up with another explanation for his jaw-dropping behavior last week before the House International Relations Committee. There he sat, recounting for the umpety-umpth time why, back in February 2003, he believed the pessimistic estimates about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. "I went and lived at the CIA for about four days," he began, "to make sure that nothing was—" Suddenly, he stopped and glared at a Democratic committee staffer who was smirking and shaking his head. "Are you shaking your head for something, young man back there?" Powell grumbled. "Are you part of the proceedings?"

Rep. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, objected, "Mr. Chairman, I've never heard a witness reprimand a staff person in the middle of a question."

Powell muttered back, "I seldom come to a meeting where I am talking to a congressman and I have people aligned behind you, giving editorial comment by head shakes."

Oh, my.

Here is a man who faced hardships in the Bronx as a kid, bullets in Vietnam as a soldier, and bureaucratic bullets through four administrations in Washington, a man who rose to the ranks of Army general, national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state, a man who thought seriously about running for president—and he gets bent out of shape by some snarky House staffer?

Powell's outburst is a textbook sign of overwhelming stress. Maybe he was just having a bad day. Then again, he's also been having a bad three years.

As George Bush's first term nears its end, Powell's tenure as top diplomat is approaching its nadir. On the high-profile issues of the day, he seems to have almost no influence within the administration. And his fateful briefing one year ago before the U.N. Security Council—where he attached his personal credibility to claims of Iraqi WMD—has destroyed his once-considerable standing with the Democrats, not to mention our European allies, most of the United Nations, and the media.

At times, Powell has taken his fate with resigned humor. Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in The New Yorker last year of a diplomatic soiree that Powell attended on the eve of war, at which a foreign diplomat recited a news account that Bush was sleeping like a baby. Powell reportedly replied, "I'm sleeping like a baby, too. Every two hours, I wake up, screaming."

At other times, though, Powell must be frustrated beyond measure. One can imagine the scoldings he takes from liberal friends for playing "good soldier" in an administration that's treated him so shabbily and that's rejected his advice so brazenly. That senseless dressing-down of the committee staffer—a tantrum that no one with real power would ever indulge in—can best be seen as a rare public venting of Powell's maddened mood.

The decline of Powell's fortunes is a tragic tale of politics: so much ambition derailed, so much accomplishment nullified.

From the start of this presidency, and to a degree that no one would have predicted when he stepped into Foggy Bottom with so much pride and energy, Powell has found himself almost consistently muzzled, outflanked, and humiliated by the true powers—Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. (Bureaucratic battles between Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon have been a feature of many presidencies, but Powell has suffered the additional—and nearly unprecedented—indignity of swatting off continuous rear-guard assaults from his own undersecretary of state, John Bolton, an aggressive hard-liner who was installed at State by Cheney * for the purpose of diverting and exhausting the multilateralists.)

One of Powell's first acts as secretary of state was to tell a reporter that the Bush administration would pick up where Bill Clinton left off in negotiations with North Korea—only to be told by Cheney that it would do no such thing. He had to retract his statement. For the next nine months, he disappeared so definitively that Time magazine asked, on its cover of Sept. 10, 2001, "Where Is Colin Powell?"

The events and aftermath of 9/11 put Powell still farther on the sidelines. He scored something of a victory a year later, when Bush decided, over the opposition of Cheney and Rumsfeld, to take his case for war against Iraq to the U.N. General Assembly. But Powell's attempts to resolve the crisis diplomatically ended in failure.

Once the invasion got under way, the principles of warfare that he'd enunciated as a general—the need to apply overwhelming force on the battlefield (which, during the last Gulf War, was dubbed the "Powell Doctrine")—were harshly rejected (and, in this case, rightly so—Rumsfeld's plan to invade with lighter, more agile forces was a stunning success, at least in the battlefield phase of the war). Powell's objections to Ariel Sharon's departure from the Israeli-Palestinian "road map" were overridden by a White House where Eliot Abrams had been put in charge of Middle East policy. Powell's statements on the Middle East came to be so widely ignored—because no one saw them as reflecting U.S. policy—that Bush sent Condoleezza Rice to the region when he wanted to send a message that would be taken seriously. When Bush dispatched an emissary to Western Europe after the war to lobby for Iraqi debt-cancellation and make overtures for renewing alliances, he picked not Powell but James Baker, the Bush family's longtime friend and his father's secretary of state.

Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a political risk-assessment firm, notes that Powell has scored significant policy achievements on China, Georgia, and the India-Pakistan dispute. But these are issues over which neither Cheney nor Rumsfeld has much at stake—politically, ideologically, or financially.

There have also been occasions, on higher-profile topics, when Powell has broken through the barricades and advanced his positions. He (and Condi Rice) persuaded Bush, over Rumsfeld's opposition, to implement the U.S.-Russian accord reducing strategic missiles. However, he couldn't stop the president from pulling out of the Anti-Ballistic-Missile Treaty.

Last September, Powell met with President Bush in the Oval Office to make the case for presenting a new U.N. resolution on the occupation of Iraq—and to announce that the Joint Chiefs agreed with him. This was a daring move: Rumsfeld opposed going back to the United Nations; Powell, the retired general, had gone around him for support. Even here, though, Powell's triumph was partial, at best. Bush went back to the United Nations, but the resulting resolution did not call for internationalizing political power in Iraq to anywhere near the degree that Powell favored.

Similarly, Powell has had a few successes at getting Bush to participate in negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear-weapons program. (Cheney and Rumsfeld oppose even sitting down for talks.) Yet Bush has declined to adopt any position on what an acceptable accord, short of North Korea's unilateral disarmament, might be. More than a year into this perilous drama, the fundamentals of U.S. policy haven't changed at all.

Powell has also won the occasional battle—or, more accurately, has been on the winning side—when his position converges with Bush's vital political interests. For instance, against the advice of Cheney and Rumsfeld, Bush will probably turn over at least some political control in Iraq to the United Nations. He will do so not because Powell has advised such a course, but because the presidential election is coming up and Bush needs to show voters that he has an exit strategy and that American soldiers will not be dying in Baghdad and Fallujah indefinitely.

If there is a second Bush term, Powell will almost certainly not be in it. News stories have reported that he'll step down. He has stopped short of quitting already not just because he's a good soldier, but because that's not what ambitious Cabinet officers do in American politics. Those who resign in protest usually write themselves out of power for all time. They are unlikely to be hired even after the opposition party resumes the Executive Office because they're seen as loose cannons.

Powell, who at one point might have been an attractive presidential candidate for either party, has fallen into a double-damned trap. He can't quit for reasons cited above; yet his often-abject loyalty to Bush, especially on the Iraq question, makes him an unseemly candidate for a future Democratic administration.

He seems to have launched a rehabilitation campaign, to escape this dreaded state. Last month, after David Kay resigned as the CIA's chief weapons inspector and proclaimed that Iraq probably didn't have weapons of mass destruction after all, Powell told a reporter that he might not have favored going to war if he'd known there were no WMD a year ago. He almost instantly retracted his words, as all internal critics of Bush policies seem to do.

Powell's best option, after January, may be to abandon his ambitions for further public office, nab a lucrative job in the private sector, and write the most outrageous kiss-and-tell political memoir that the world has ever seen.

Correction, Feb. 19, 2004: The piece originally identified John Bolton as the No. 2 in the State Department. In fact, Richard Armitage, the Deputy Secretary, is the department's No. 2. Bolton is one of six under secretaries. Return to the corrected sentence.