War Stories

Why Powell Had To Go

And how will Condi fare as his successor?

Colin Powell, lame-duck secretary

And so the other shoe has dropped on the sad career of Colin Powell. Here is a man who enjoyed the most appealing life story in American politics. The son of Jamaican immigrants who pulled up his own boot straps in the Bronx; a Vietnam vet who rose through the Army’s ranks to general, national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state; a proud black man who could have made a serious run for president under either party’s banner—chewed up and spit out on the shard-strewn sidewalk of Losers’ Boulevard.

Powell’s “resignation” this morning was one of the surest bets of a second Bush term. He had long endured a string of humiliating defeats at the hand of his Pentagon rival Donald Rumsfeld. For well over a year now, he’s been out of the loop on every high-profile issue of foreign policy—Iraq, Iran, North Korea, nuclear arms control, Middle East peace talks.

In recent months, he’s been hammering his own coffin, making little effort to hide his displeasure while serving a president who famously demands loyalty. On the record, Powell has told reporters that the insurgency in Iraq has grown stronger and that he might not have supported the war if he’d known Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction. On background, he and his closest aides have vented their frustrations and criticisms more harshly, most notably (but by no means exclusively) in his old friend Bob Woodward’s latest book.

At the same time, Powell associated himself with Bush’s policies just enough to incur the wrath of Democrats. The key incident was his Feb. 5, 2003, briefing before the U.N. Security Council, where he made a strong case for the existence of Iraqi WMD—and thus for war. It was a war that, many knew, Powell privately opposed; it was a briefing that, later evidence revealed, was almost entirely false. The upshot was the wreckage of Powell’s reputation. The Democrats could no longer trust him; the administration rewarded him, for his troubles, with nothing but further disdain.

Many Bush critics had hoped that Powell might get fed up enough to quit, but this was sheer fantasy. First, he is, as they say, a “good soldier.” A soldier’s chief obligation is to his commander in chief, and, from all indications, Powell took this duty seriously. Second, the American political system has no use for officials who resign in protest; they’re shunned as loose cannons by both parties, unworthy of trust to hold executive branch positions again. (Ask Cyrus Vance or Daniel Ellsberg.)

Bush didn’t fire Powell because, as long as Powell was in the tent, Bush knew he would cause only so much trouble. But once out of the tent, once he no longer served the commander in chief, Powell might have felt free to criticize policies openly. Polls had shown Powell to be more popular than Bush. A Powell-launched fusillade might have damaged Bush’s re-election campaign.

Even if George W. Bush were an unusually forgiving president, and even if he wants to give diplomacy a more vigorous whirl in his second term, he would not—and shouldnot—have granted Powell an extension. The entire world knows that Powell is out of favor. Any deal he might have negotiated, any assurances he might have given, any declaration of policy he might have uttered would have been subject to doubt. Last year, when Bush wanted to send a message to various Middle Eastern leaders, he sent his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. When he wanted Western European leaders to forgive Iraqi debt, he sent his father’s secretary of state, James Baker. A secretary of state who is not seen as the driving force of U.S. foreign policy—or at least as its chief courier—is doomed to a milquetoast’s fate.

Flash! This just in: Sources say Powell’s replacement is Condoleezza Rice. What does this mean?

The good news: Rice is among Bush’s closest advisers, so foreign leaders will at least know that her words reflect the views of the president. Her appointment may also provide, at least in the short term, a morale boost among foreign service officers—a note of compensation for the departure of their cherished Powell that the State Department is now run by someone who has the president’s ear and trust.

The bad news: In her four years as national security adviser, Rice has displayed no imagination as a foreign-policy thinker. She was terrible—one of the worst national security advisers ever—as a coordinator of policy advice. And to the extent she found herself engaged in bureaucratic warfare, she was almost always outgunned by Vice President Dick Cheney or Rumsfeld. Last year, for instance, the White House issued a directive putting her in charge of policy on Iraqi reconstruction; the directive was ignored. If Rumsfeld and his E-Ring gang survive the Cabinet shake-up, Rice may wind up every bit as flummoxed as her predecessor.