Wednesday, November 17, 2004

After Colin Powell

Colin Powell is gone, which was not unexpected, and in itself is not a tragedy.

Perceived as moderate in the Bizarroland parallel universe we call the Bush administration, Powell was certainly a good soldier (his “investigation” into the My Lai massacres attests to this) and a pragmatist. His prosecution of the first Gulf War, and his articulation of the Powell Doctrine (the principle that forces should only be deployed when national interest, commitment, and support have been established) are also testimony more to his pragmatism than to his moderation. And pragmatism, on the whole, is not an entirely bad thing, especially within the context of this extremist, ideologically rigid administration. This pragmatism, at least, balanced the hawkish imperial mindsets of PNAC pals Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Perle. But this balance has been perceived within the administration more as opposition, and perhaps Powell's greatest contribution to Bush’s presidency has been his reputation as “war hero” and his popularity among the American people.

Many people looked at Powell’s appointment as Secretary of State as a symbol of, and commitment to, moderation in the first Bush administration. But many others claimed that Powell had “sold his soul” in accepting it. If Powell’s “Faustian bargain” wasn’t evident enough in his near daily friction with neo-con empire builders, it certainly became obvious in the buildup to the US invasion of Iraq.

Before September 11, 2001 “changed everything,” Powell maintained that the policy of containment forced on Saddam Hussein under UN sanctions had worked, and continued working. He was initially opposed (as was the case in the first Gulf War) to an invasion of Iraq and the forcible overthrow of Saddam, wishing instead to continue a policy of containment. At a news conference in Cairo on February 24, 2001, Powell stated flatly

“…frankly they [sanctions] have worked. He has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors. So in effect, our policies have strengthened the security of the neighbors of Iraq, and these are policies that we are going to keep in place, but we are always willing to review them to make sure that they are being carried out in a way that does not affect the Iraqi people but does affect the Iraqi regime's ambitions and the ability to acquire weapons of mass destruction…”

He counseled Bush against invasion, invoking the so-called “Pottery Barn rule” (you break it, you own it). In Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward quotes Powell telling the President, "You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people. You will own all their hopes, aspirations and problems. You'll own it all."

But the PNAC ideologues advising Bush administration would not budge, and “good soldier” Powell agreed to sell the idea of invasion to the world. Powell sought—unilaterally?—the involvement of the international community in the invasion, even as neo-cons fought for a unilateral approach. It was within this context that Powell addressed the United Nations on February 5, 2003 to argue in favor of a multinational coalition to overthrow Saddam.

But the evidence provided by the administration was scant, spotty, questionable, and ultimately false. And Colin Powell knew it. A US News & World Report article described an angry Powell, in a rehearsal of his presentation to the United Nations, taking the intelligence documents that constituted the case against Saddam and throwing them in the air, yelling “I’m not reading this. This is Bullshit!” And the world community knew, too, that it was just that and rejected the arguments.

At this point, Powell was all but finished as Secretary of State, so his resignation now comes as no surprise. The good soldier did his job and continued in his post. Many have wondered why Powell didn’t quit when asked to do something that apparently compromised his principles and his integrity. But Powell is and always has been the consummate “good soldier” and it is in the sometimes antagonistic relationship between loyalty and integrity that Powell’s Faustian bargain becomes so tragically clear.

Colin Powell is gone, which was not unexpected, and in itself is not a tragedy. The tragedy, when it presents itself, lies in what follows his exit. The United States, under this administration, continues its perilous move to the right. And the hard-liner who appeared moderate, the military man forced into submission by civilian hawks, will soon be forgotten, written off as a liability by the Project for a New American Century. In 1995, speaking of the decision not to pursue Saddam in an all-out invasion of Baghdad, Powell said

“Even if Hussein had waited for us to enter Baghdad, and even if we had been able to capture him, what purpose would it have served? And would serving that purpose have been worth the many more casualties that would have occurred? Would it have been worth the inevitable follow-up: major occupation forces in Iraq for years to come and a very expensive and complex American proconsulship in Baghdad? Fortunately for America, reasonable people at the time thought not. They still do.”

Are there any reasonable people left in America?

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