... but with Mr. Bush he's loyal to a fault

April 22, 2004|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward's book about how and why President Bush went to war against Iraq, portrays a secretary of state who was blatantly dissed by his boss back in January 2003.

Colin L. Powell and the Bush administration have disputed Mr. Woodward's account of Mr. Powell being informed of Mr. Bush's critical decision to go to war only after Mr. Bush informed Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and even Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

This dispute is curious, since Mr. Powell admitted Monday that he was among the many people Mr. Woodward interviewed, including President Bush. Mr. Powell has long been known to be not only a good source for Mr. Woodward, but also a diplomat who knows how to play the media as well as John Coltrane played the tenor sax.

Either way, the administration praised most of the book as a fair and generally complimentary account of the days leading up to the war.

Which raises a big question in my mind: Why didn't Mr. Powell quit while he was behind?

He was doing fine until he joined the Bush administration. With his charismatic presence, his formidable biography and his squeaky-clean reputation, Mr. Powell was among America's most admired men.

But his tenure as secretary of state has faced one setback after another, mostly at the hands of Mr. Cheney, Mr. Rumsfeld and other neoconservatives.

Mr. Powell's first months in office were so low-profile that Time magazine asked on its cover "Where is Colin Powell?" The date of that issue, ironically, was Sept. 10, 2001. His profile soon rose, but in August 2002, it was conservatives beseeching Mr. Powell to get on the Iraq war bandwagon or get out of the way.

Mr. Powell once told Mr. Bush in the Oval Office that the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed with him that the United States should present a new U.N. resolution on the occupation of Iraq, even though Mr. Rumsfeld opposed going back to the United Nations. Mr. Bush returned to the United Nations, but the resulting resolution did not call for nearly as much internationalization of political power in Iraq as Mr. Powell wanted.

After persuasively presenting claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to the United Nations that have turned out to be bogus, Mr. Powell's once-mighty stature has been reduced among Democrats and America's allies, among others. Within the administration, his sacrifice appears to have won him nothing. His image remains positive, but less superhuman.

Mr. Powell's biggest leverage is his popularity. His approval ratings tend to range from the high 70s to more than 80 percent. Mr. Cheney, whose ratings tend to run in the 40s or, on a good day, the 50s, reportedly chided Mr. Powell to sacrifice some of his high approval ratings by supporting the crusade to topple Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Powell, good soldier that he is, sallied forth, investing some of his political capital.

Will Mr. Powell stick around for a second Bush term? "I serve at the pleasure of my president," he has responded enigmatically when reporters have asked. Translation: "I'm out of here."

What if he had quit? Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Powell could have slowed the train long enough for Americans to have gone into the war, if it came to that, with more information upon which to base their views. By now, he might be seen as some sort of principled hero.

He's not likely to resign now. He's a good soldier, and besides, it's too late.

Also, as a quitter, he would never drink lunch in this town again. In Washington, a protest resignation brands you for life as a loose cannon who can't be fully trusted with another government appointment - by either party. But Mr. Powell is not likely to stick around for another Bush term, if there is one. Sometimes, as John F. Kennedy used to say, party loyalty asks too much.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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