By William Fisher
Watching Colin Powell testify on Darfur before a Senate committee last week, I was reminded of other times when the two most trusted men in the United States were Walter Kronkite and Colin Powell.
Kronkite was for many years the anchor of the CBS Evening News, back before we got most of our news via cable. It was he who told us President Kennedy was dead.
Colin Powell, much decorated Vietnam warrior, former National Security Advisor to President Ronald Reagan, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ended up as Secretary of State in the Administration of George W. Bush.
As I watched Secretary Powell courageously assert that Sudan was indeed guilty of genocide, I found myself overcome with sadness about the deep hole the misadventures of George W. Bush have dug for this brave man, who could have been elected president had he not declined to run for the Republican nomination in 2000.
And I, a lifelong Democrat, would have voted for him. I trusted him. I knew that, like all great solders, he valued peace with freedom above all else.
I know Secretary Powell doesn’t want sympathy from me – or anyone else. He remains, to a fault, the good soldier.
But these days, precisely because he is every inch the good soldier, he must find himself obliged to say or imply things that are simply not believable. That things are going better in Iraq. That peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is really a top priority in the Bush Administration. That there was a connection between Saddam Hussein, Iraq, al Quaida, and 9/11.
Colin Powell was the man President Bush dispatched to the United Nations to make the case for intelligence we now know was largely incorrect – and which provided the basis for the US invasion of Iraq. He put his reputation on the line – and lost.
It has been said that Colin Powell is the best-known and least influential Secretary of State in American history. He has been consistently snookered by the neo-conservative cabal at the Defense Department, and his public credibility irrecoverably damaged by CIA groupthink. His plan for winning the peace in Iraq was ignored and shelved. As recounted in painful detail in Bob Woodward’s book, Plan of Attack, the President told his Secretary of State of the decision to invade Iraq at the 11th hour. He warned Mr. Bush that ‘if you break it, you own it’. It was too late to undo the decision.
So now, the US owns it – notwithstanding all the election-year rhetoric about returning ‘sovereignty’ to the Iraqis.
Secretary Powell will never admit any of this. His life as a soldier has made him too loyal. But the people who best understand his dilemma are the ones who work for him. At the State Department, Colin Powell is admired, respected, even loved. Many people there say he is the best Secretary of State since George Marshall. The Bush Administration has squandered his enormous gifts.
And, at the Darfur hearing before the Senate, one could again see the spark of the Colin Powell that was and is no more.
I hope Secretary Powell avoids the embarrassment of another term in a second Bush Administration. I suspect he will spare us the obligatory ‘kiss and tell’ book. I hope he will head the World Bank.