Just Above Sunset Archives

February 23, 2004: Musical Chairs - Colin Powell loses

Home | Odds and Ends | Music Notes | Book Notes | Sidebars | Culture Wars Lost | Culture Wars Won | Gay Marriage | Jesus Flogged Repeatedly | Photography | Quotes | Links and Recommendations | Archives | Daily Commentary (weblog)

I was at West Point in June 1990 for my nephew's graduation - and the commencement speaker was Colin Powell.  The president had spoken the previous year and the tradition was that it was to be, that year, the vice president.  But I suspect someone thought the idea of Dan Quayle inspiring these new young officers was a little implausible.  So they sent the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - and that is about as high up in the military as one can go.  Colin Powell wasn't even a West Point guy.  He came up through ROTC, curiously.  And the speech was fine. 

Now he is our Secretary of State and has been, shall we say, effectively neutered and rendered mostly harmless - and certainly insignificant. 

How did this happen? 

Fred Kaplan offers an analysis in Slate that is pretty good. 

See The Tragedy of Colin Powell: How the Bush presidency destroyed him
Fred Kaplan, SLATE.COM, Posted Thursday, February 19, 2004, at 9:56 AM PT

Kaplan recounts Powell getting testy last week in a senate hearing when an aide started smiling and shaking his head at something Powell said - and Powell reprimanded him. 

Kaplan's view?  Colin Powell melting down. 


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. 


Well, that is what happened. 

But Kaplan says we should consider the circumstances:


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.  

... 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. 


Kaplan says this is all "a tragic tale of politics: so much ambition derailed, so much accomplishment nullified."

Perhaps so. 

The story? 


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? "



Well, he won one over Cheney and Rumsfeld when he finally got Bush to go to the UN for some sort of vote on the war - as if that mattered.  And of course 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.  When Bush had to send someone there to calm the folks there down he sent Condoleezza Rice - to show he was serious.  Powell wouldn't do.  Fix the problem with all the debt Iraq had accumulated over the years.  Send Powell?  No.  Use the family friend, James Baker. 

Kaplan does point out one interesting win:


Last September, Powell met with President Bush in the Oval Office to make the case for presenting a new UN 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. 


Yeah, but it didn't work.  We got no help there. 

North Korea?  Kaplan reminds us Powell said we'd continue the Clinton idea supported by the South Korean government - talk this nuclear-weapons program out.  Cheney and Rumsfeld opposed even sitting down for talks.  Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld shut him down and he took it back - Powell said he really didn't mean it.  But curiously, now we're talking a bit. 

And yes a few weeks ago David Kay proclaimed that Iraq probably didn't have weapons of mass destruction after all - so 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.  Bad boy!  Now roll over and play dead. 

The man is out, any way he turns.  The Republican Bush administration neutered him and the Democrats know him as a shill for the neoconservative maniacs who want us to abandon girly diplomacy altogether for manly war and silence.  Real men don't talk.  They act. 

Think of that musical chairs game.  Fifteen people and fourteen chairs.  The music ended.  Everyone found a place to sit down, and he didn't.  So it goes. 

Kaplan says 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. 

Like after the Suskind book we need another?