I used to have sympathy for Colin Powell, the supposed adult among the neocon kindergartners who pushed this nation into war in Iraq. Now I see him merely as a boxer who has taken one too many dives. And he has been doing so to protect a no-good mob.
The on-the-ground reality in Iraq was darn ugly last week: cities beyond the control of the United States military or the new Iraqi government, rising American casualties (not only did the number of dead American GIs top 1000, the rate of US troops killed in action has increased), and mounting civilian deaths in US military attacks. So the Bush White House--looking to keep the bad news from Iraq from shaping the presidential campaign in these final weeks--dispatched Secretary of State Powell to the Sunday morning shows to do what he does best: put forward a reassuring and realistic spin. On Meet the Press, Tim Russert asked if Iraq was heading toward civil war. Powell calmly replied:
It's always a possibility, but I don't think it's going to happen. We have leaders in the interim government who represent every element of Iraqi society. We have Kurd, Shiias, Sunnis. They're all working together. What are they working together for? To end the insurgency, to build up Iraqi security forces so they can take care of their own security and to get ready for an election with the help of the coalition and the help of the U.N. These are dedicated men and women who get up every day in order to keep their country together, to work for a political outcome that reflects the will of the Iraqi people and they're being attacked by insurgents.
And so it is a difficult time. There's an insurgency that has to be put down, and when that insurgency is put down, what the people of the world will see are Iraqis in charge of their own destiny, moving toward an election that will provide for a representative form of government, the creation of a constitution and the ratification of a constitution, and it's going to be something they'll be able to be proud of.
And so this is a difficult time as this insurgency still rages and as we work to bring it under control, but it will be brought under control. It's not an impossible task. And when it has been brought under control, you'll find that the forces that keep Iraq together are stronger than the forces that pull it apart.
In other words, there is nothing about which to worry. When George W. Bush--or Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz--make such an argument, it seems self-serving and absurd. But Powell has that magic touch: he concedes the problems, promises it will work out in the end, and those who want to believe can believe. He certainly is no Scott McClellan, who has the air of a waiter carrying far too many plates and is but a second away from dropping the entire load.
But Powell can only prettify the mess so much. And he can only do so by resorting to disingenuousness. On Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace asked Powell, "John Kerry now says that Iraq is the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time. Is any of that right?" Powell replied:
It is a war that succeeded in removing a dictator--a dictator who was a threat to his own people, a threat to the region and a threat to the international order. And so we did the right thing at the right place and the right time to get rid of that dictator and to give the Iraqi people a chance for peace.
A threat to his own people, the region and the international order. Hmmm, what did Powell leave out? Oh, yeah--a threat to the United States. Before the war, Bush and his gang claimed that Saddam Hussein's regime was a "direct" and "immediate" threat to the United States. Bush, citing Hussein's supposed possession of significant amounts of weapons of mass destruction, repeatedly called it a "grave and gathering threat." But now Powell is helping the Bush rewrite history by airbrushing out of the picture the primary rationale for the war.
Wallace did not ask Powell about the absent WMDs. But Russert did. And Powell countered with a falsehood. The exchange:
RUSSERT: As you well know, the primary rationale given for the war was weapons of mass destruction. The deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, said this, that "...we settled on that issue because everyone could agree on it. ... There actually had been three fundamental concerns. One was WMD. Two was support for terrorism. The third was the criminal treatment of the Iraqi people. ... The third one by itself..."--the criminal treatment of the Iraqi people--"is a reason to help the Iraqis but not a reason to put American kids' lives at risk, certainly not on the scale we did." In light of the fact there's no direct connection between Iraq and September 11, no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, is it worth 1,000 American lives and 7,000 wounded and injured simply because Saddam was a bad guy?
POWELL:....The president decided that action was appropriate in Iraq and he put together a coalition of many nations that joined in that judgment and joined in that fight. Because, one, Saddam Hussein has used weapons of mass destruction in the past. He had an intention. He had a capability. And all of the intelligence available to us and to the internal community led us to the conclusion that he had stockpiles and it was a reasonable conclusion at that time.
That is not true. Not all the available intelligence said there were stockpiles. The prewar National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq (flawed as it was) did not state there were biological weapons stockpiles; it only maintained there was a biological weapons development program (and, as subsequent events demonstrated, it had overstated that conclusion). And the Defense Intelligence Agency reported in the fall of 2002 there it had found no evidence that Iraq was maintaining stockpiles of chemical weapons. Powell is being quite slippery here. He is suggesting the evidence was clear and undeniable on the question of WMD stockpiles. But here he is putting his reputation for probity to misuse and selling a phony cover story.
Powell is quite useful for Bush. He plays the role of the administration's reasonable man. He comes out and says there was no direct connection between Iraq and the terrorists of 9/11 (undermining Cheney's repeated suggestions such a link existed). He says Kerry would deal with the terrorism in a "robust" fashion (undercutting Cheney's charge that the United States would be hit again by terrorists should Kerry be elected). Asked if he would have supported the invasion of Iraq had he known there were no WMD stockpiles there, he says, maybe, maybe not (distancing himself slightly from the Bush line). But he refuses to concede that he and the Bush administration misrepresented the case for war. "I'm disappointed; I'm not pleased"--that's all he says about the misleading intelligence on Iraq's WMDs that he infamously cited at his prewar briefing of the UN Security Council. (When it comes to Iran's nuclear program, Powell notes that the Bush administration is working closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. He does not remind the audience that the administration he serves trashed the IAEA when the IAEA was conducting inspections in Iraq during the months before the invasion.)
In Washington, there has long been a debate within foreign policy circles hostile to Bush and his war: is it better for Powell to be in the administration or not? Does Powell occasionally apply the brakes to the administration's recklessness? Is he a mature, multilateralral influence? My view is that if there are benefits from his tenure at the State, they are outweighed by an obvious cost: how he helps the Bush bunch stay in power and, thus, enables the neoconservatives. In the final weeks of the election, I expect the public will see more of Powell than Wolfowitz. He will reassure. He will have plausible-sounding explanations for the screw-ups. He will offer soothing words about the "challenges" ahead. In doing all this, he will be fronting for the neocons. And if Powell does his job well, they will have more four more years to impose upon the world their miscalculations. It seems Powell never grows tired of kissing the mat for the Bush gang.
DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers).
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