Colin Powell: Unlikely Avitar of a Failed and Shameful U.S. Foreign Policy

Powell & Bush 

The political obituaries for Colin Powell nicely illustrate the myopia and forgetfulness of what passes for media scrutiny in this country. Like a Greek chorus reading from the same script, all the press commentary intones that Secretary Powell has been out of the loop on every high-profile issue of foreign policy since the decision to go to war in Iraq. Only since then? Hell, he was never in the loop!

In his very first week in office, Secretary Powell declared that the Bush administration would build on the substantial negotiations commenced by the Clinton administration to bring North Korea into the community of nations. He was promptly bitch-slapped by Vice President Cheney and was not heard from again for nine months. The 10 September 2001 issue of Time magazine asked from its cover, “Where is Colin Powell?”

Up to that date, America seemed to have little need for a Secretary of State. We had completely disengaged from the Middle East peace process, paving way for the spiraling violence of the second intefada. When neo-conservative strategies were not further polarizing our adversaries, American exceptionalism was alienating our allies. Relations with China were strained when a U.S. Air Force spy-plane collided with a Chinese fighter plane, sending the Chinese aircraft into the South China Sea. The U.S. was hauled before the World Trade Organization over illegal tariffs imposed on European steel, a gesture of economic pandering from President Bush to the key electoral states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. U.S. foreign policy was about power politics and unilateralism. Diplomats were surplus to requirements.

As has been said in many contexts, September 11 changed everything. America desperately needed an effective Secretary of State. And we found one in an unlikely place: Great Britain. Whatever Tony Blair’s faults – and please don’t get me started on them – he is an eloquent and effective diplomat. Mr. Blair made the case for the world to rally around America; and the world responded. The Bush administration was given a rare second chance to mend global relations.

Sadly, Mr. Bush’s puppet masters were not interested, squandering the closest thing to global good will any American administration will ever see.

There is no reason for me to recite the further decline of U.S. foreign relations in the years since. These wounds are still sufficiently fresh, and sufficiently raw, that even the media commentators manage to keep them in mind. And through it all, there was Colin Powell, holding firmly to the title of his office.

Secretary Powell’s refusal to resign his emasculated post was one of the most pathetic episodes in a very sad four years of misguided U.S. foreign policy. Sure, Mr. Bush couldn’t get rid of him; he was politically untouchable. But why on earth did he stay? To give lip-service to policies in which he did not believe?

Secretary Powell’s apologists allude to his military background and suggest that he was just being a good little soldier. Bullshit. Loyalty is one thing. Loyalty to a master who shows you no respect, disregards your counsel, undermines your authority, and delegates your job responsibilities to his closer cronies is simply masochism – and unprincipled masochism at that.

Secretary Powell had two options, one honorable and the other expedient. He could resign with dignity rather than watch American foreign policy be dismantled or he could develop a new-found conviction for the misguided policies of Vice President Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld, and their neo-conservative lieutenants. He chose to do neither. Instead, he took the feeble and utterly reprehensible path of administration errand boy, wavering between disgruntled figurehead and dishonest mouthpiece.

Four years ago Colin Powell was a hot property. Rumors abounded that had Mr. Bush not been elected, Al Gore would have made him Secretary of State. Mr. Powell was frequently described as a man who could run for president in either party. He was universally respected. Today, he resigns from government a loser. His belated decision to leave the State Department does not come nearly soon enough to salvage the shamefulness of his persistence.

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