Powell violated public's trust ...

April 22, 2004|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - A friend of mine took a job that had all sorts of opportunities and risks. So along with her goals, she wrote a list of 10 things she would never do to keep the job. When she'd done five of them, she quit.

I've been thinking of her as the next chapter in the Colin L. Powell biography unfolds. In his new book, Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward writes, to no one's surprise, that Mr. Powell was reluctant to go to war. He writes, to much more surprise, that the secretary of state was out of the loop when the decision was made.

I don't know where or what "the loop" is, but now Mr. Powell is fighting back to prove that he was in it. "My support was willing and it was complete," he told the Associated Press, "no matter how others might try to impose their policy wishes on my body."

Haven't those of us who long respected this general, this statesman, finally maxed out the list of things we thought he'd never do? For many of us, Mr. Powell was a reassuring - the reassuring - figure in the Bush administration. It wasn't his politics so much as his character. He was admired as trustworthy.

He was a popular choice for secretary of state, even, or especially, among those who were uncertain about the president. Maybe President Bush could be called a cowboy, but Mr. Powell was a sober general. Maybe Vice President Dick Cheney had a "fever" for regime change, but Mr. Powell was a cooler head. Maybe others would designate Iraq as a "cakewalk," but Mr. Powell knew that after you entered Baghdad, the "Pottery Barn rules" took over: You break it, it's yours.

I was glad that he was there. And I was wrong. If anything, Mr. Powell provided a false reassurance to those who thought to ourselves, "Well, if he says so ... maybe."

Entries one, two, three and four on my "Not To Do" list come under the date of Feb. 5, 2003, when Mr. Powell took his and our credibility to the U.N. Security Council and offered a PowerPoint presentation that would make Microsoft proud.

He made a compelling case of "Iraq Failing to Disarm." With quotes and highlights and photos, the slides even included a picture of the now-infamous aluminum tubes linked to the fanciful nuclear weapons programs.

Even if the attempt to get the United Nations on board was right, those power points - weapons of mass destruction, links to al-Qaida - were largely wrong. If he was misled, so did he mislead. If "The Man," as Mr. Cheney calls the president, cannot admit mistakes, Mr. Powell has been only marginally more open.

Washington insiders have called the Powell-Bush relationship a "soap opera." Can a moderate survive in a hawkish Cabinet? For how long? It is similar to questions asked in many work places: When does disagreement require a divorce? When do you get out? When do you speak out?

But I suspect that many dissenters in a company or an administration stay on not just out of loyalty, but also out of the hope that they can still make a difference. And out of the belief that things would be worse without them.

I don't know how Mr. Powell calculates his victories. Whether he is loyal to the president or the troops, whether he believes in the policy or in his ability to change it. He may well feel it's his burden to put together the broken Iraq.

But any public illusion that he makes a difference has been shattered. That's the end to the soap opera. And if Mr. Powell won't quit on Mr. Bush, isn't it long past time to quit on Mr. Powell?

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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