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The Powell enticement
Bush’s most popular ally is back in the public eye — once again providing ‘an appearance of reasonableness’ for a president who is anything but

GEORGE W. BUSH must really be worried. With the situation in Iraq deteriorating and with his damn-our-allies attitude frightening the middle-of-the-road voters he needs to win in November, Bush is dangling Secretary of State Colin Powell in front of us once again. It had been a long time since we’d seen much of Powell, but it makes sense. Powell may be the president’s greatest political asset. And that’s what this is all about: election-year politics, nothing more.

Late last month, reports began to appear that Powell — whose resignation early in a second Bush term had been a foregone conclusion almost from the moment Bush took office — might be willing to change his mind. "It is my understanding that Powell has let it be known that if the president would ask him to stay on, and if he’s not going to be marginalized, he would look at that opportunity," Patrick Cronin, a former senior State Department official, recently told the Boston Globe.

Powell also recently took part in a high-profile fact-finding mission to Sudan, where an estimated 50,000 people have been killed in ethnic violence and 1.2 million left homeless. And he was the administration’s frontman in declaring that the Sudanese government’s actions in the Darfur region of that country amounted to "genocide." Politically, that was a three-fer for the White House: it was the right thing to do; its most politically palatable figure was the one who did it; and it put pressure on our European allies to follow suit. Unlike the build-up to the war in Iraq, with regard to Sudan it was the United States seen as taking the moral high ground and Europe as cravenly lagging.

As if that weren’t enough, Powell made an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press this past Sunday and took issue with Vice-President Dick Cheney’s remarks of the previous week, in which Cheney all but asserted that a vote for John Kerry was a vote for Osama bin Laden. Cheney himself had been forced to back down from his statement that if voters make the wrong choice, "then the danger is that we’ll get hit again." But on Sunday, Powell took matters quite a few steps further. Speaking of Kerry and terrorism, Powell told host Tim Russert, "As commander in chief, I think he’d respond to it in a robust way. There’s no commander in chief, no president of the United States, who would not respond to terrorism. Now, how he would respond, which strategies that individuals would use, I can’t predict the future." Thus did Powell seek to inoculate Bush from the soft-toned rantings of his deeply unpopular vice-president.

All this was prelude to Powell’s appearance this past Monday before the Senate Government Affairs Committee, at which he both atoned for the deceptive case he made for war at the United Nations in early 2003, and also blamed it on others. According to the Washington Post, Powell testified that the government needs a powerful national-security director — proposed by the 9/11 Commission, and at least partly endorsed by Bush — in order to prevent the kinds of errors that he made on that infamous day, when he claimed that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction and had ties to Al Qaeda.

On Capitol Hill this past Monday, Powell said that "some of the sourcing that was used to give me the basis upon which to bring forward that judgment to the United Nations were flawed, were wrong," and that he was "distressed" to have learned that some members of the intelligence services "had knowledge that the sourcing was suspect, and that was not known to me." How disingenuous can you get? The case against Iraq’s weapons capabilities and terrorist ties had been made publicly for months before Powell went to the UN. For many, his powerful testimony that day was a signal that he — up to that time the most credible member of the administration — had carefully considered and rejected that case. The subtext of his testimony this week was that he knows what went wrong, and that he also knows how to prevent it from happening again. With the polls showing, inexplicably, that voters trust Bush on national security more than they trust Kerry, Powell’s statements were just what Dr. Rove ordered to ease any lingering doubts.

The events of recent weeks carry a message that couldn’t be more clear: Colin Powell, among the most popular figures in the country and the epitome of moderate Republicanism, is back. And no doubt we’re going to see plenty of him through Election Day, just as we saw him electrify the nation in 2000, at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Trouble is, Powell virtually disappeared after Bush took office, marginalized by the White House hawks who really had Bush’s ear — Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, et al.

In Bob Woodward’s most recent book, Plan of Attack, Powell comes off as a self-serving bureaucrat, a consistent advocate for diplomacy and an opponent of the war who was nevertheless almost completely ineffective, and unwilling either to speak out or to resign. It is, in fact, Powell’s loyal deputy, Richard Armitage, who appears to be more clear-eyed and introspective. Woodward wrote, "A close friend of Armitage’s from Congress told him that he and Powell had really failed. They had become the enablers, providing cover and an appearance of reasonableness so Cheney and Rumsfeld worked their will. Armitage didn’t think his friend from Congress was wrong."

Now Powell is allowing himself to be used to provide "cover and an appearance of reasonableness" once again. This time, let’s hope it doesn’t work. Powell’s stint as Bush’s secretary of state has been an enormous disappointment — in part because of his own shortcomings, but even more because Bush has made it clear that he doesn’t value Powell’s advice and counsel. Pulling Powell off the shelf once every four years may be good politics. But it doesn’t undo the massive, tragic failures of this presidency.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters[a]phx.com

Issue Date: September 17 - 23, 2004
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