Four years ago today, then Secretary of State Colin Powell testified before the UN Security Council on the absolute necessity of going to war against Saddam Hussein. What followed is history. That testimony will define the bleak legacy of Colin Powell, but lately he has marked his distance from the war that his testimony both justified and enabled. In December, he contradicted administration claims to declare that the United States is "losing" the war in Iraq, and last month he contradicted the Bush "surge" strategy by calling for a "drawdown" of forces. Clearly, the former secretary of state is a man in the grip of regret.
Powell's example calls to mind the long American tradition of powerful figures who, while in office, put in place structures of unbridled violence, only, upon leaving office, to warn of them. In describing this, the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton adapts the familiar phrase "retirement syndrome," usually defined as stresses associated with the cessation of work, to apply to this social phenomenon -- the criticism of policy by the creators of policy after they no longer have responsibility for it. Perhaps the most famous instance of this form of retirement syndrome is Dwight D. Eisenhower's, in the stirring warning he issued in his 1961 farewell address. He decried the "military-industrial complex" as if he had not himself just spent eight years presiding over its construction.
The most poignant exemplar of retirement syndrome is Robert McNamara, who has spent the last quarter century as a critic of conventional American attitudes toward war in general, and of the strategic doctrines of the nuclear age in particular. He had, of course, given masterful expression to both, as the secretary of defense responsible for Vietnam and "Mutual Assured Destruction."
After the Cold War, when the United States showed every intention of maintaining its nuclear arsenal at Cold War levels, numerous senior military figures who had had responsibility for that arsenal, upon leaving uniform, became strident nuclear objectors. Chief among those was General George Lee Butler , former commander in chief of the Strategic Air Command, who said of nuclear weapons after he retired, "Such weapons have no place among us. There is no security to be found in nuclear weapons. It's a fool's game." Similarly, with Paul Nitze , the nuclear official for all seasons. Having pushed nukes on every US president from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, he denounced the enterprise in a 1999 op-ed piece for The New York Times; "The fact is, I see no compelling reason why we should not unilaterally get rid of our nuclear weapons."
Such things still happen. The grand slam of retirement syndrome occurred last month. In a Jan. 4 op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal, former secretaries of state Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Schultz , and former secretary of defense William J. Perry , together with former senator Sam Nunn , recalled fondly that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had almost agreed to the elimination of nuclear weapons. The four former US officials proposed a "rekindling" of the Reagan-Gorbachev abolitionist vision. Kissinger, with his historic 1957 article "Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy," laid the intellectual justification for nukes that still makes nations want them. The very possession of the weapon, not its use, is a source of transcendent power. That thinking remains the nub of the problem Kissinger now wants to undo.
Schultz was at Reagan's elbow in Reykjavik when the president made his Strategic Defense Initiative the deal-breaker with Gorbachev. Their hoped-for agreement to abolish all nuclear weapons hung in the balance. Reagan had a moment of self doubt, and slipped a note to Shultz with the question, "Am I wrong?" Schultz, according to his own memoir, whispered, "No, you are right." Right to scuttle the dream of a nuclear free world. Even Nunn agreed then that the near deal on nukes would have been an "embarrassing example of American ineptitude." Perry, for his part, presided over the Pentagon's 1994 Nuclear Posture Review, which ordered the continuance of the anti-Soviet nuclear arsenal as a "hedge" against unnamed future threats from Russia. The threats never came, but the nukes remained.
It is good news that officials who put terrible structures of thought and power in place want later to undo them. How much better it would be, though, if such wisdom came to them when they could act upon it. Colin Powell's authority today instructs the critics of the war. Too bad that authority did not prevent it.
© 2007 Boston Globe