Powell Stands Up to Bush on Torture

Maybe it's like buying a yellow car and then suddenly you start seeing yellow cars all over the place, but wherever I turn there is talk of fear and standing up to fearmongering. Last week the fear talk was provoked by three events: the fifth anniversary of 9/11, the death of the fearless Ann Richards and four Republican senators and a former secretary of state's standing up to the administration's fear-drenched rhetoric: "If we don't torture, your family is dead." Here is a New York Times editorial on the subject:

"Senators Warner, McCain and Graham have come up with a serious alternative, and they deserve enormous credit for standing up to Mr. Bush's fearmongering -- something many Democrats seem too frightened to do ... Many members of Congress who succumb to the strong-arming will know, in their hearts, that they were doing the wrong thing out of fear for their political futures."
I've found Colin Powell's sudden display of fearlessness particularly significant. And there was nothing common about his opposition to the Bush administration's attempt to redefine Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

Rejecting the White House spin that it was merely hoping to "clarify" the Convention's stance on cruel and inhuman treatment of detainees, Powell framed the debate in the most profound way possible, as a moral question, not a legal one.

"The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism," he wrote in a letter to John McCain. "To redefine Common Article 3 would add to those doubts."

Well, I might take issue with his use of the phrase "beginning to doubt" -- I think it's safe to say the world is no longer in the early stages of doubt -- but his larger point is dead on: For decent people there can be no wiggle room when it comes to torture.

Considering the source, it was a catalytic statement that is already emboldening others in the GOP to follow their conscience instead of toeing the party line -- no small feat less than two months from the midterm elections in which we already know Karl Rove and the RNC are going to mount an unprecedented fear and smear campaign.

It was a bold move for Powell, a potentially redemptive line drawn in the sand for a public figure whose reputation has fallen on hard times in the wake of the Iraq debacle.

Fear is an interesting thing. It's ever-present, but sometimes we let it stop us from doing what we know is right, and sometimes we're able to master it and do what's right anyway.

Early in his public life, Colin Powell appeared fearless. A great part of his appeal was his willingness to march to the beat of his own drummer -- putting leadership above expediency. Again and again he acted as a real leader, speaking out in favor of affirmative action, attacking corporate welfare, sounding the alarm about the two million Americans living behind bars, promoting condom use in the fight against AIDS and suggesting it was time to rethink America's disastrous war on drugs.

He appeared independent -- which is precisely why he was so valuable to the Bush administration as the floor salesman for the lies about Iraq.

Whether it was motivated by a desire to be a team player, a loyal staffer, a good soldier or a fear of not pleasing his boss, Powell's stomach-turning role in selling the war to the world led to those 80 minutes he spent in front of the U.N. Security Council, throwing his considerable reputation behind the administration's ginned-up case for invasion. Definitely not his finest hour. They turned him from a can't-miss presidential contender into a man who has, like the country he has so loyally served, seemingly ceded the moral high ground.

His unequivocal rebuke of his commander-in-chief is a powerful step toward retaking that hill. Let's hope that fearlessness is as contagious as fear.

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