Three years ago, The General rode into Foggy Bottom on a white horse. Today he's riding a weasel.
It is not a pretty sight.
And that is tough to reconcile, because on the day he entered office as secretary of state, Gen. Colin Powell my personal favorite and not just among the incoming Bush elites but among all the Washington swells.
Powell was once my first choice to be president, as a Republican or Democrat. When he didn't want to try for that job, he was my top choice to be veep. So it is not easy to see him now that he has discovered his real role in the Bush administration a role that required not a grand parade sword or sidearm but a shovel.
Week after week, his main assignment has been to clean up after the Grand Old Party elephants, one named Cheney, the other Rumsfeld. As in that day just one year ago when the once-credible secretary of state was sent out to vouch to the United Nations and the world that he personally knew of clear and compelling evidence that Iraq possessed banned weapons of mass destruction.
In a well-reported piece last Sunday, Washington Post correspondents Glenn Kessler and Walter Pincus wrote that one year ago, the CIA prepared the first draft of Powell's U.N. speech and sent it over to Vice President Cheney's office, where it was massively changed. The draft from Cheney's staff contained 45 pages on weapons of mass destruction and 38 pages on alleged links to terrorism. But when Powell and the CIA asked for evidence supporting each assertion, according to an unnamed source, the Cheney team's draft "fell apart like a toothpick house."
But even when the draft was reworked, Powell wound up repeatedly saying such things as: "My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence. ... The gravity of this moment is matched by the gravity of the threat that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction pose to the world."
Now respected arms inspector David Kay has declared Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. So this week, in an interview with The Washington Post, Powell was asked a very simple, yes-or-no question: Would Powell have recommended that the United States invade Iraq if he had been told that Saddam Hussein's regime had no weapons of mass destruction? "I don't know," said Powell, "because it was the stockpile that presented the final little piece that made it more of a real and present danger and threat to the region and to the world."
I don't know? Here's where the General began riding the weasel. Throughout the interview, Powell was clearly straining to defend the Bush administration's decision to rush into war. But then again, he also acknowledged the "absence of a stockpile changes the political calculus; it changes the answer you get." (That was "you" as in "I.")
Do we really believe that this once proud chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who, during the First Persian Gulf War of Bush the Elder, was always reluctant to order U.S. military personnel into harm's way unless the cause was certain and the force level would be overwhelming really doesn't know if he would have recommended going to war even if he knew Saddam had no WMDs? Instead of straining to giving an answer that would be the least offensive to President Bush, Powell would have been better off to have heeded the wise advice offered in a somewhat different context by one of his earlier bosses Nancy Reagan: Just say no.
As in: No, I would not have recommended going to war if I knew Iraq no longer had WMDs.
But that would have required doing something rarely witnessed during tough times in Washington. It is called Telling the Truth. Without evidence of an imminent WMD threat from Saddam Hussein, I believe the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs would not have wanted to divert U.S. military forces from the still-unfinished job of vanquishing the enemy that had already attacked us, the terrorists of al Qaeda who threaten us still today.
Powell has not yet spoken in total unweaseled candor with the American people whose sons and daughters were sent to fight and die in Iraq. But to do so would also put the once-proud secretary of state in a position where he would no doubt have to undertake yet another action that has all but vanished from the Washington ethos: Resign, as a matter of principle.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.
Copyright 2004 Scripps Howard News Service