Thu, Nov 18, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Colin Powell's lonely war

Some used to say he might be the US' first black president but, as he leaves office, the abiding image is of using phoney intelligence to persuade the UN to go to war. What happened to Colin Powell?

By Julian Borger  /  THE GUARDIAN , Washington


When he was still a military man, Secretary of State Colin Powell drew up a list of 13 rules to live by. Most have come in useful in his four years in the Bush administration but none more so than No. 3: "Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it."

Powell's positions on US foreign policy fell with such thudding regularity that a secretary of state with less philosophical detachment might have resigned long ago.

A lone internationalist in an administration full of neo-conservatives heady with American power, he was publicly contradicted by the White House over North Korea, and had his negotiating position taken from under him while in the midst of Middle East talks.

Powell was barred from talking to the press about vital diplomatic issues, and in February last year, he was sent to the U.N. to argue for a war he did not believe was necessary with evidence which later turned out to be almost entirely bogus, shredding years of carefully accrued international credibility in a single day.

The question constantly hovering over Powell's head over the past four years of isolation has been: "Why does he stay?"

One answer put forward by his colleagues at the State Department was that he was a good soldier, and would never desert his post. That was no doubt all the more important a consideration after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The other side of that coin is that he believed his struggle to rein in the radical militarist instincts of the president and his coterie of advisers was a battle that could not be shirked, for the sake of the country and for the soldiers who would be sent to die as a consequence of the decisions taken in Washington.

That was Powell's lonely war.

Soldiering on

Asked why he travelled so little for a secretary of state, his aides would point out that all power lay in Washington, and that is where the action was. It often seemed he was not so much America's representative working for US interests abroad, but the world's sole voice in the American capital. The neo-conservatives saw his role that way and despised him for it.

He never established a close relationship with the president. Prompted by the journalist Bob Woodward to say something nice about his secretary of state, Bush could only come up with: "Powell is a diplomat ... and you've got to have a diplomat."

Powell often spoke of his role in Washington in terms of conflict. In one of his regular informal telephone chats with UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, he joked he did not have to go abroad to face a jihad.

"There's a jihad against me right here at home," he said, according to a diplomat's account of the conversation.

At home, however, Powell kept smiling. Rule No. 2 on his list was: "Get mad, then get over it."

In his days as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, he kept another aphorism under glass on his desk. It said: "Never let them see you sweat."

Powell learned by hard experience that going abroad could be fatal for his influence around the Cabinet table.

`Friendly' fire

When he was on a tour of central Asia in December 2001, his principal conservative adversaries, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, tried to stage a policy coup and cut off ties with Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, declaring him a sponsor of terrorism. The secretary of state had to fly home and fight a rearguard action to reverse the policy.

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