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The Mirage of Colin Powell

Colin Powell is admired for being admirable the way some Hollywood celebrities are famous for being famous. He is a charismatic figure with a compelling biography, and Americans of all persuasions have a way of projecting onto him their own views. Hence the announcement Monday that Powell will be stepping down as secretary of State brings to an end one of liberals’ favorite dinner-party conversation topics -- whether it would be better for decent Colin Powell to resign on principle or to continue waging war against the hawkish Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rice cabal from within.

Condoleezza Rice, the national security advisor, will be Powell’s replacement at Foggy Bottom, senior officials said. We are underwhelmed with Rice’s track record in the White House, but there is little doubt that she is close to the president and is the architect of the administration’s foreign policy. Because it does no one any good to continue having a secretary of State who doesn’t enjoy the full confidence of the president and is not seen to speak for the administration, Rice would be a sound choice for the job.

Powell’s tenure at the State Department was less heroic than often suggested. He could have achieved more by resigning after losing one too many battles, but instead he has tried to have it both ways, loyally staying on while encouraging speculation that he often disagrees with the president’s more extremist ideas. Still, he does deserve some credit for helping avert a war between India and Pakistan, for bringing all major East Asian powers to focus on the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program and for getting the Bush administration to at least try to win U.N. backing for the war in Iraq. He ended up tarring his reputation for probity by delivering to the Security Council what turned out to be a fictitious account of Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction.

On the whole, his instincts on such questions as when it is appropriate for the U.S. to go it alone in the world are moderate compared to those of others on the administration’s national security team. But Powell probably disagreed less with the overall tenor of Bush policy than his liberal admirers would like to believe.

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One of the more curious aspects of Powell’s career is that he has shied away from a presidential run despite this sense of duty and his enormous charisma. George W. Bush probably would not be president if Powell had run for the office in 2000. His reluctance to do so may stem from the same risk aversion that underlies the famous Powell Doctrine, which is that the nation ought never to engage in a conflict absent overwhelming superiority and certainty of success.

Powell’s risk aversion clouded his judgment on some high-profile policy debates earlier in his career. As head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he was opposed to the Persian Gulf War and had to be swatted down by then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, who told him to keep his political views to himself. During the Clinton administration, Powell did it again, undercutting urgent calls for intervention to stop ethnic warfare in the Balkans.

At the State Department, Powell was hardly the first chief diplomat who was perceived as being at odds with his own administration. That’s a bit of tradition that dates back to the very first man who held the job, Thomas Jefferson. And, as with Jefferson, Powell’s ineffectual tenure at State is unlikely to forestall future opportunities, though he will only deserve to be admired if he candidly speaks out when he disagrees with administration policies from now on.


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