Colin Powell’s resignation as secretary of state may be a more important development than meets the eye.
It could be argued that he has been so marginalized and ineffective that he might as well resign, and that it makes no difference whether he is in office or not. Powell wanted to devote great energy to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after September 11, and for a brief moment seemed to have Bush’s ear, but then Bush capitulated to hard line Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Powell was never able to make any headway. At one point Bush even sent Condi out to meet with Middle East leaders, which one would have thought would be the job of the secretary of state, not of national security adviser.
Powell was not enthusiastic about a war on Iraq, and his own doctrine called for the US to go in with massive force if it did go in. Instead, Rumsfeld sent in only 100,000 troops, laying the ground for the subsequent disaster. But you get no credit in Washington for having been right. You only get credit if you win the policy battle, regardless of how it turns out. Powell almost never did.
Powell was sent to the UN Security Council to read a lot of shaky charges against the Saddam regime. Indeed, Powell is said to have thrown out the charge of attempted uranium purchases from Niger, saying “I’m not reading this garbage.” But he read enough garbage to sink his reputation for probity and solidness. The UN security council was openly derisive of his speech, to the extent that one UN official bet me there couldn’t be a war after that disastrous performance. I told him the war had been decided long ago. He should give the money to charity if he ever remembers the bet. I don’t want it.
But insiders in Washington have told me enough stories about Powell victories behind the scenes that I am not sure the marginalization argument is decisive. Powell had an alliance with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, and the two of them could sometimes derail the wilder plans of the Department of Defense. Blair, and probably Powell, convinced Bush to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan before going on to an Iraq war. Imagine how dangerous the situation would be if the US were bogged down in Iraq as it is now, but Bin Laden’s 40 training camps were still going full steam!
Likewise, I have it on good authority that Powell and Blair derailed a Department of Defense plan to install Ahmad Chalabi as a soft dictator in Iraq within 6 months of the fall of Saddam. Jay Garner had been given this charge, and Powell was able to get Paul Bremer in, instead, with a charge to keep the country out of Chalabi’s corrupt hands.
So at some crucial junctures, Powell has played an essential role in ensuring the implementation of a more sensible policy. Without him in the administration, hotter heads may well prevail.
I saw Lawrence Eagleburger on CNN Monday evening say that he thought Condi Rice was not right for Secretary of State because she had been in the White House for four years and, he implied, would be incapable of offering George W. Bush independent advice. Eagleburger was secretary of state very briefly at the end of the Bush senior administration, succeeding James Baker, with whom he continued to have an association. Eagleburger has been critical of the Neoconservatives, and I suspect he feels that Dr. Rice will be no counterweight to them whatsoever.
Rice seems to me to have two major drawbacks as Secretary of State beyond her inability to challenge Bush’s pet projects. One is that she is an old Soviet hand who still thinks in Cold War terms. She focuses on states and does not understand the threat of al-Qaeda, nor does she understand or empathize with Middle Easterners, about whom she appears to know nothing after all this time. The other drawback is that she is virtually a cheerleader for Ariel Sharon and will not be an honest broker between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Powell was much more fair on such issues, though he wasn’t exactly pro-Palestinian either. Of course, with Elliot Abrams as the national security council staffer in charge of Arab-Israeli things, you might as well have Sharon just run US Middle East policy himself.
If the second Bush term is going to be mainly full of Fallujahs, though, I suppose Colin is well out of it. Seeing the iron fist lowered over and over again to little political advantage would be the more depressing the closer you were to the decision-making process.