The Unimportance of Being Colin Powell

Colin Powell has been reduced to little more than a figleaf used to cover the excesses of the most radically unilateralist administration since World War II. So why does he stay?

While he is unquestionably the most popular secretary of state in memory, Powell also has become the most powerless -- since hapless William Rogers was repeatedly humiliated by then-national security adviser Henry Kissinger during Richard Nixon's first term.

From the Middle East to North Korea, from pre-emption to population policy, and from the Kyoto Protocol to peacekeeping and the International Criminal Court, Powell has lost virtually every major policy battle to the most reckless, single-minded members of the administration. This gang of rightwing hawks has used the "war on terrorism" to push through an unabashedly imperial vision of foreign policy that gives even the military brass, not to mention Washington's closest allies, the heebee-jeebies.

Powell, the highly decorated army general and former chairman of the Armed Forces Joint Chiefs of Staff, is being humiliated by a clique of neo-conservatives and armchair militarists centered in the upper reaches of the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office. (These are men that Powell's loyal deputy, highly decorated Vietnam veteran Richard Armitage often refers to privately as "pissants," a reference in part to their history of draft evasion.) The president himself routinely pulls the rug out from under Powell on major policy issues, leaving him to defend the most egregious decisions of the administration -- decisions he has almost invariably argued against. The same president was quick to use his African-American secretary of state to deflect a reporter's question about his civil rights record earlier this month.

"Let's see," Bush responded. "There I was, sitting around the leader with [sic] - the table with foreign leaders, looking at Colin Powell and Condi Rice," he noted before calling for the next question.

Bush's insensitivity does not seem to faze the loyal Powell who simply "soldiers on" without complaint, as the New York Times put it in a lengthy, front-page story last Thursday.

Friends and advisers interviewed by the media offer three standard explanations for Powell's perseverance in the face of stupidity, if not adversity. One, he's stubborn and, like the army grunt he was, doesn't give up easily. Two, he is loyal to his commander-in-chief. And three, he wants to serve as an inspiring role model for African-Americans and other minorities.

Another favored explanation is that Powell fears Bush is likely to appoint someone far worse in his place. "[Deputy Defense Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz would probably get the job," noted one highly placed source. "He thinks it's his patriotic duty to stay." Wolfowitz -- who as Pentagon's number three under then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney battled frequently with Powell over the conduct and aims of the Gulf War -- has long been the leading advocate for the ouster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, with or without the support of NATO or Washington's Arab allies.

Significantly, Wolfowitz and Cheney's current chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, were the chief authors of a 1992 'Defense Policy Guidance (DPG) which set out their vision for U.S. dominance in the post-Cold War era. The DPG laid out a scenario and strategy that eerily resembles Bush foreign policy since Sept. 11. "While the U.S. cannot become the world's 'policeman' by assuming responsibility for righting every wrong," the two men wrote, "we will retain preeminent responsibility for addressing selectively those wrongs which threaten not only our interests, but those of our allies or friends." They argued that Washington must retain the ability to deter "potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role" than the one permitted them by the U.S.

The document -- which incidentally failed to even mention the United Nations -- also claimed U.S. military intervention around the world should be seen "as a constant feature" - a "feature" which is becoming an integral part of the endless war on terror. They also called for pre-emptive attacks against countries engaged in the development of weapons of mass destruction, a recommendation that became official U.S. policy earlier this year.

This unipolar and frankly imperial vision -- fired by the self-righteousness and arrogance of neo-conservative and Christian Right ideologies that seem to be the administration's guiding light -- is now defining U.S. foreign policy. It represents, as Washington's former U.N. Ambassador, Richard Holbrooke, told the Times, "a radical break with 55 years of a bipartisan tradition that sought international agreements and regimes of benefit to us."

Indeed, Powell is no soft-hearted peacenik. He is a classic realist who believes strongly in U.S. hegemony in world affairs. But hegemony, unlike imperialism, is negotiated among nations. It does not rest on outright coercion that is touted by Wolfowitz and Libby, and which is driving a growing wedge between the United States and its traditional allies.

In that respect, Powell takes very much after Bush Sr.'s most influential foreign policy adviser, ret. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who strongly favored building coalitions to gain maximum consensus behind difficult policy initiatives. In May, Scowcroft - now chairman of the Presidential Foreign Intelligence Advisory -- strongly defended Powell's arguments for a more even-handed U.S. stance in the Middle East to win Euuropean and Arab support. In a column published in the Washington Post, he even called for the deployment of an international peacekeeping force with the participation of U.S. troops.

But even Scowcroft's support had zero impact. Within a month, Bush, at the urging of Cheney, Rumsfeld and Karl Rove, aligned U.S. policy for the first time in Israel's history with the hard-line Likud Party. He called for the ouster of Palestine Authority (PA) President Yassir Arafat literally days after Powell told reporters that Washington had to work with Arafat as the only elected leader of the Palestinian people.

It was the most spectacular example of a pattern, which was set early in his administration when Bush publicly overruled Powell on relations with South Korea within two months of taking office. It was a sign of things to come. That kind of humiliation has now become the norm for Colin Powell.

Here's a quick litany of public insults from just the last month. A special high-level State Department delegation absolves the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) of supporting forced abortions in China and publicly absolves it, but Bush cuts off aid to the agency anyway. Powell publicly favors engaging reformists in Iran led by President Mohammed Khatami; the White House calls for his overthrow. The State Department argues in favor of attaching human rights provisos to aid for the notoriously abusive Indonesian armed forces, but is overruled by the Pentagon. The State Department counsels a U.S. abstention on a new U.N. treaty to prevent torture, the administration first tries to derail it and then votes against it -- along with other human-rights champions such as China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran and Cuba.

Is it any wonder that Powell has made no progress this weekend in bringing India and Pakistan closer to talks over Kashmir? The two governments must naturally wonder if he really speaks for the administration.

Faced with this record, the Times suggested in an editorial Sunday that "the time has come when (Powell) should not be so accommodating," suggesting that the secretary of state has not stood his ground in the internal debate within the White House. "He might even throw a tantrum or two," the Times, an unabashed Powell fan, opined.

But perhaps it's too late to throw a tantrum. A hissy fit is unlikely to change the mind of the zealous Cheney-Rumsfeld gang which is feeling more confident than ever. Maybe the best thing Colin Powell can do is just simply leave, depriving the Bush administration of its wafer-thin veneer of decency. And the sooner he leaves, the more apparent it will become just where this administration is taking the nation, and the world.

Jim Lobe writes on foreign policy issues for AlterNet, Inter-Press Services, and Foreign Policy In Focus.

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