Secretary of State Colin Powell is one of the most recognizable, and maybe the most well-liked figure across party lines, in the Bush administration. He has served his country long and well. Yet evidence mounts that he was (and remains) on the sidelines to advise and implement President Bush's major foreign activities, especially the Iraq war.
Powell's reluctance to invade Iraq has been no secret. Bob Woodward's new book, "Plan of Attack," has added new, attributable quotes. If, as Woodward suggested, Powell is "out of the loop," and peripheral to the president's major decisions, then he should resign. He owes that course to himself, his reputation and to the nation.
Principled resignations have not been prominent in American history. Resignations have become elaborately ritualized, designed largely to spare both sides public embarrassment. The famous Watergate resignations of April 30, 1973, offer a case in point. President Richard Nixon's top aides, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman "regretfully" resigned, and with apparent equal "regret," the president accepted them. Atty. Gen. Richard Kleindienst similarly "resigned" that day. All three fought tenaciously to preserve their jobs; they had no choice, however, and they left at Nixon's insistence. That same day, Nixon simply fired John Dean, the counsel to the president. Nixon was unconcerned about his feelings or reputation; for good reason, as we were to learn in less than two months.
Powell might want to be remembered for the manner of his leaving. Resigning on principle, in the firm belief you behaved correctly, is a rare act. U.S. Atty. Gen. Elliot Richardson resigned in 1973 with dignity and grace when he refused to carry out Nixon's order to dismiss Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. William Jennings Bryan resigned as secretary of state because he believed President Woodrow Wilson's actions would lead the nation to war. And Cyrus Vance, President Jimmy Carter's secretary of state, resigned because he disagreed with military operations to rescue Iranian hostages in 1979. All had the satisfaction of eventual vindication.
Richard Clarke's resignation as Bush's chief adviser on counter-terrorism apparently resulted from his growing sense of frustration. He also regarded the looming war with Iraq as misdirected. At first, he requested transfer to a cyber-security position, and apparently cared deeply about that issue. Yet in January 2003, he quit during the run-up to the Iraq war.
Powell has acknowledged that he talked to Bob Woodward about his role in the decision to go to war. He has denied that he was "out of the loop." But he has not specifically confirmed or rejected any of the remarks Woodward attributed to him. Did Powell tell the president that he would be "the proud owner of 25 million people; [y]ou will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You'll own it all."? Did he tell the president, "If you break it, you own it."? We don't know. But the useful Latin maxim here is that "silence connotes consent."
A principled resignation by Powell might offer the nation clarity and focus as it prepares to debate and judge the actions of the administration. Powell's speech to the United Nations, "documenting" the administration's case for war, has proven both exaggerated and deceitful. Powell himself found the usual Washington language to acknowledge his errors without, of course, explicitly saying so.
Profound principles are at stake: Does the administration have a right to use foreign policy for its own political and personal agendas? May the government make a blatantly dishonest case, based on hyped claims that Iraq held vast quantities of weapons of mass destruction, and had strong links to Al Qaeda, to lead the nation to war? As evidence mounts that the Iraq war was unnecessary or, at best, unjustified, contrary to what the administration contended, Colin Powell should weigh his own beliefs and his responsibility.
Powell is a highly decorated military officer, rising to chairman of the Joint Chefs of Staff, and he served well as President George H.W. Bush's national security adviser. Powell certainly has been a good soldier for this president. Recently, he bristled at a congressman who had questioned Bush's military record. Yet in his autobiography, Powell angrily denounced "the sons of the powerful and well placed ... [who] managed to wangle slots in Reserve and National Guard units. Of the many tragedies of Vietnam, this raw class discrimination strikes me as the most damaging to the ideal that all Americans are created equal and owe equal allegiance to their country."
Powell has indicated, and it has been widely reported, that he will not be part of a second Bush administration. His choice then is simple: serve until January 2005, fight some skirmishes against Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, yet remain marginalized except when there is a need to parade the "Good Soldier"; or resign now because he has been badly used, even ignored, by the administration.
Resignation would ensure a historic and successful memoir.