One of the puzzles of America's war in Iraq has been the role of Secretary of State Colin Powell. When President Bush took office, many thought that Powell -- with his moderate views on social issues, his experience as the nation's top general and his leadership skills -- would be willing and able to dull the extreme worldviews of the more ideological people in the administration like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
He may have tried, and may still be trying, judging from the cat fights now taking place within the administration. But few can forget Powell's presentation on Iraq to the U.N. Security Council. He sounded so sure, and seemed to offer quality evidence. Many believed him -- and thus believed Bush.
Hardly had Powell finished speaking, however, than large holes began to appear in the case he'd laid out. Over time, it has proven to be a case based on imagined dangers and flawed and exaggerated intelligence -- no case at all to justify a war. Why did Powell let himself be used in this way? Because he's a good soldier? In a case so crucial as Iraq, that won't wash. Because he was duped? That's hardly more flattering to Powell.
Now comes more news that suggests Powell isn't the man many thought him to be. It's a yearlong State Department study that anticipated difficulties the United States would encounter in Iraq. Indeed, it anticipated many of the problems that have arisen during the U.S. occupation.
It was ignored.
Asked about the report during a TV interview, Powell said it was "a good, solid piece of work that was made available to the Pentagon." But what parts of the report the Pentagon put to use, Powell didn't know. Reporters would have to ask Rumsfeld about that.
Powell is secretary of state; the study was prepared in his department on his watch. He had more obligation than just to "make it available to the Pentagon." If Powell believed Rumsfeld was about to make mistakes that would put U.S. prestige and American troops at risk, he had an obligation to ensure everyone knew of the dangers that were being ignored. It appears that Powell failed to protect the country from what he knew was bad prewar intelligence and bad postwar planning.
Back in July, an excellent Knight-Ridder article reported how badly the Pentagon planned for postwar Iraq. The small circle of Pentagon officials who dominated the discussion, it said, "didn't develop any real postwar plans because they believed that Iraqis would welcome U.S. troops with open arms and Washington could install a favored Iraqi exile leader as the country's leader. Pentagon civilians ignored CIA and State Department experts who disputed them, resisted White House pressure to back off from their favored exile leader and when their scenario collapsed amid increasing violence and disorder, they had no backup plan."
Rumsfeld is an ideologue wearing blinders. At times, even his military commanders have had to go around Rumsfeld to make the point that the secretary's approach wasn't working.
But Powell isn't an ideologue. He was one person everybody hoped would serve as a consistent, moderate counterbalance in this administration. Again and again, however, he has failed to do that, to the nation's great regret.
© Copyright 2003 Star Tribune