Powell is America’s nowhere man

Fred Kaplan is the national security columnist for Slate.

IT’S BEEN ONE YEAR since Colin L. Powell left high office. Where did he go?

So sad, even tragic, is the tale of this man’s evaporation. Once, he might have made a serious run for president, under either party’s banner. Just a few years ago, he ranked among the most-admired Americans: a proud Jamaican immigrant who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, rose through the Army’s ranks to general, then to White House assistant, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and finally the first black secretary of State.

It was from this pinnacle that he crashed and burned. Outmaneuvered at every turn by the tag team of Cheney & Rumsfeld, shut out of policy on the major issues of the day, bamboozled by false intelligence on Iraq and ordered to link his credibility to the public case for a war he didn’t believe in, Powell left office in tatters after George W. Bush’s first term. Republicans viewed him as too dovish. Democrats considered him untrustworthy. His pals on the Euro-diplomatic circuit saw that they had been dealing with a nowhere man, that his whispered assurances of moderation had reflected only his own views, not his government’s.


In his final weeks as secretary, Powell started venting his frustration. He clearly had been a key source for his old friend Bob Woodward, whose 2004 book “Plan of Attack” detailed what Powell had been saying and even thinking about Iraq. Now he was going on the record. He told one reporter that he might not have supported the war had he known Saddam Hussein didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. He told another that the Iraqi insurgency was stronger than anyone anticipated.

He quickly retracted those remarks. But it looked as if the warrior-diplomat might not go gently into his good night. Some of his friends were relieved that he might finally speak out on all the things he had kept coiled inside. Book agents and publishers lined up with lucrative offers for kiss-and-tell memoirs.

One year later, debates rage over Iraq and a dozen other matters of foreign and military policy. Powell is uniquely positioned to play a major role in those debates. Why isn’t he engaged?

Last June, Powell went on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” It was one of his first TV guest spots since leaving office. Stewart is famous for his barbed attacks on Bush and the war. Surely Powell wouldn’t be appearing on this show unless he had something to say.

But no, he had nothing. Explicit jabs at his old tormenters might have been beyond all expectations, but he refrained from the slightest criticism -- not so much as a wink, a nudge or a suggestive giggle. Stewart left him wide openings, but Powell took none of them. Sure, there were disagreements, Powell conceded, but hey, that’s true in any administration. The president’s the boss, and he’s a swell guy. Why, he and Laura were just over at the house for dinner the previous week.

The common explanation for Powell’s reticence is that he’s a “good soldier” and loyal to the Bush family. But this won’t hold. He removed his uniform long ago, and a decent interval has elapsed since he took off the pinstripes too. His former colleague and another retired Army general, Brent Scowcroft, has still deeper loyalties, but they haven’t kept him from inveighing against the president’s policies. Then again, they have made him persona non grata at the White House. Surely this couldn’t be what Powell fears -- that George and Laura won’t pop by for barbecue anymore?


Powell has considerable resources. He is a strategic limited partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a Silicon Valley venture-capital firm. He is actively involved with the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies at City College of New York. He is on the boards of Howard University, the United Negro College Fund, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the Children’s Health Fund. He also has no political future to risk.

Why can’t he act like an independent man? For starters, why doesn’t he tell the American people, in an open forum, the same things he told Woodward in his home over cocktails?

Earlier this month, Powell was among the former secretaries of State and Defense who met with the president to “exchange views” on the war. Powell said nothing. Some reporters wrote that his silence “spoke volumes.”

No, it didn’t. It spoke nothing. He came off, like all the others who leapt at the chance to sit in the Cabinet Room again, as a prop in Bush’s photo-op.