About five months ago, Colin Powell received an award named in honor of George C. Marshall, another American general who became secretary of state. In advance of that event, Powell indicated that he would like to give an interview to The Post — and told a Post reporter to read up on two incidents in Marshall’s career beforehand. The first concerned President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s failure to name Marshall as commander of the D-Day invasion. “Marshall, whatever disappointment he felt over that, he simply ate it,” Powell said in the interview. “It’s what serving this nation is all about.”
The second involved Marshall’s bitter objections to President Harry Truman’s recognition of the state of Israel, and Marshall’s decision not to air those objections in public. “I think any subordinate accommodates himself to the wishes of his superior,” Powell said.
Any subordinate accommodates himself to the wishes of his superior. That’s what serving this nation is all about. Whatever disappointment he felt, he simply ate it.
In those few brief phrases, Colin Powell established, on the one hand, that he admired George Marshall for his loyalty. He also hinted — strongly — that he, like Marshall, disagrees with his president.
So is Colin Powell loyal? Is he simply “serving” — and “eating it” when disappointed — or does he also want us to know that he would do things differently, if he were in charge? The question arises again this week, with the publication of Bob Woodward’s book “Plan of Attack,” which dissects the administration’s decision to fight the Iraq war. Powell has confirmed serving as a source for the book, and indeed some of its scenes — such as accounts of how he tried to talk the president out of rushing to war — seem to have come from him. Powell has now declared that he was “committed as anyone else” to the war, but the intent of the original leak, like the intent of his Marshall award interview, is clear. Once again Powell is trying to have it both ways, and it is not an attractive picture. Surely true loyalty means not only swallowing your pride when you disagree with your commander in chief but keeping quiet about it as well, at least while in office.
Nor is this just about definitions of loyalty. For, unfortunately, Powell’s mixed feelings had deeper consequences. There is no doubt that when he wants to, Powell can defend the president’s policies abroad with more eloquence than anyone else in the administration. In the winter of 2002, following President Bush’s “axis of evil” speech, the secretary of state suddenly appeared all over the European press. In a masterful interview with the Financial Times, he laughed off criticism from the European foreign affairs commissioner (“I shall have to have a word with him, as they say in Britain”) and the French foreign minister (he’s just “getting the vapours”). On the opposite end of the political spectrum, he inspired the Daily Telegraph to run a gushing headline: “We Americans know how to get a job done when we put our minds to it.”
In the fall of 2002, however — right when Bush was pushing Powell’s preferred “diplomatic solution” to the Iraq problem at the United Nations — the U.S. secretary of state was nowhere to be seen. In the run-up to the Persian Gulf War in 1991, then-Secretary of State James Baker spent weeks at a time in Europe and the Middle East, including most of November 1990. Powell, by contrast, went to Europe once in the autumn of 2002, to the NATO summit in Prague, and then only on very brief trips the following spring.
More importantly, he didn’t play the role that he could have played in the European media, defending the decision to go to war. That is hardly surprising, because he opposed that decision — and has never been shy about letting us know. His opposition would have been perfectly legitimate, of course, had he been an ordinary citizen, say, or even a member of Congress. But because he was secretary of state, his half-loyalty undermined further the diplomacy of an administration already inclined to scoff at the views of foreigners, and has continued to do so in the year since the war was launched.
None of which is to say Powell is solely or even partly to blame for all of the mistakes that have been made in Iraq. But he can partly be held to account for the lack of international support, which it was his responsibility to rally, and for the failure of the U.N. process, which was his idea. He can also be held responsible for the fact that much of the State Department has apparently washed its hands of the entire country (to the extent that some senior State Department officials refuse to answer questions about Iraq at all). And if he doesn’t want to be held responsible for a policy he dislikes — then he should have resigned a long time ago.