Powell played his `good soldier' role all too well

April 26, 2004|By Cynthia Tucker

WASHINGTON - For the past week, the inside-the-Beltway grapevine has been buzzing with Bob Woodward's latest book, Plan of Attack, and its portrayal of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell as the Bush administration's reluctant warrior. With apparent cooperation from Mr. Powell, Mr. Woodward offers up the secretary's many misgivings about toppling Saddam Hussein:

"[Deputy Secretary of State Richard] Armitage had been pushing hard for Powell to request private time with the president. ... [Mr. Powell] achieved a breakthrough of sorts on Aug. 5, 2002, when [President] Bush invited Powell and Condoleezza Rice to the residence. ...

"Powell's notes filled three or four pages. War could destabilize friendly governments in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, he said. It could divert energy from almost everything else, not just the war on terrorism, and dramatically affect the supply and price of oil. What of the image of an American general running an Arab country ... Mr. Powell asked?

"How long would it be? No one could know. How would success be defined?"

Given that the modern White House is obsessed with the same sort of plotting, backstabbing and intrigue that consumed medieval courts, it is no surprise that the chattering classes are trying to figure out what Mr. Powell is up to: Did he talk to Mr. Woodward so freely to ensure a flattering portrayal in the book? Does he want historians to point to him as the wise man the administration refused to heed?

If Mr. Powell is trying to rescue his reputation, he's too late. It hardly matters whether, in private, he tried to talk President Bush out of invading Iraq. In the end, Mr. Powell publicly supported a military misadventure that he knew was based on a cascade of lies. When his country desperately needed his candor, Mr. Powell instead engaged in the same distortions and deceptions for which he reportedly criticized Vice President Dick Cheney.

Perhaps the crucial hour in the run-up to the war came on Feb. 5, 2003, when Mr. Powell presented his brief to the United Nations. Mr. Bush sent Mr. Powell to make the presentation because he knew the secretary's popularity at home and credibility abroad were needed to sell the invasion.

Ever the good soldier, Mr. Powell repeated the most egregious falsehood: Mr. Hussein was in league with al-Qaida. Every Western intelligence agency, including our CIA, knew there were no meaningful ties between Mr. Hussein - a thug but a secularist - and Osama bin Laden, a religious fanatic.

And Mr. Powell knew it, too. He went out of his way to describe to Mr. Woodward his frustration with Mr. Cheney's constant attempts to link Mr. Hussein to bin Laden.

Nevertheless, when Mr. Powell had the opportunity to clearly tell his countrymen that there was no connection between Mr. Hussein and al-Qaida, he caved.

Mr. Powell's admirers point to his career in the military and its inculcation of an ethic of duty and loyalty. As a good soldier, they say, Mr. Powell would always follow the orders of his commander in chief, even if he disagreed. But Mr. Powell had a higher duty to his fellow Americans, and he failed us.

In his autobiography, My American Journey, he wrote of his sense of betrayal over Vietnam: "I had gone off to Vietnam in 1962 standing on a bedrock of principle and conviction. And I had watched that foundation eroded by euphemisms, lies and self-deception."

But when his country needed him to expose the lies of another war, he didn't. Instead, he lent his name to the lies.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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