Archive for Sunday, April 25, 2004

Powell’s role in war still in question

April 25, 2004


— What did the secretary of state know about the decision to go to war in Iraq and when did he know it?

Bob Woodward's latest Washington political storm in book form recasts the historic question that Howard Baker asked about Richard Nixon and the Watergate cover-up, Woodward's initial investigative success. But it may not be the right question in the convoluted case of Colin Powell.

Powell has denied that the decision was made in November 2002, and that he was left out of the loop by President Bush, as Woodward writes. There is circumstantial evidence to support Powell's public attestation. But that does not mean the views of the secretary of state got very far, or that he is being entirely candid about his role even now.

As late as mid-January 2003, Powell was still telling foreign colleagues that "I have a war to stop," as he put it to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. Powell gave the clear impression that he hoped to enlist Straw -- who also was skeptical about going to war -- and other foreign leaders in his effort to dissuade President Bush from attacking Iraq.

This presents an even more agonizing and consequential question for the year-after spate of controversy and post-mortem: How far should a Cabinet member go in fighting his president or prime minister? Should British diplomats, Saudi Arabian princes and U.N. civil servants be encouraged to influence internal U.S. policy debates? Some senior U.S. officials concluded as the debate in the winter of 2003 wore on that Powell was doing just that.

Also in mid-January of 2003, Dominique de Villepin, then France's foreign minister, told a foreign visitor that he was convinced the United States would not go to war. The context of de Villepin's remarks, comments from other French officials and similar remarks by German officials at that time strongly suggest that Powell was telling other key Europeans that -- as Powell says now -- Bush had not made his final decision, and in fact might still be dissuaded.

"What is truly dramatic about the long run-up to the war is that you had Powell and Straw -- the top diplomats in each government -- working together trying to undermine the clear determination of their bosses to go to war," a senior official with direct knowledge of the U.S.-U.K. conversations in early 2003 said some months ago. The full story, if and when historians can get it, will be worth telling.

The Powell statement to Straw -- and the foreign secretary's echoing back to Powell the sense of sharing a mission to avoid war -- was reiterated in several of their regular telephone chats, which often occurred on Sunday after Powell came home from church, according to a second official aware of the conversations at the time.

But after a disastrous U.N. Security Council meeting on Jan. 20, when Powell felt de Villepin ambushed him on Iraq, the "chatter" that outsiders could pick up about Powell's dissonance died down. He delivered a compelling case for war at the United Nations on Feb. 5, though he edged away from his presentation in a Washington Post interview some months ago and now seems to be racing away from it in the account given by Woodward.

As far as I can determine, Powell avoided any encouragement of foreign lobbying on the war policy after Feb. 5. Straw put aside his reservations, risked his career in strongly backing Blair and has not told tales out of school. But it is impossible to know what was in either man's soul, which makes it possible for them to deny any outsider's account of their motivation.

In the suspicions he engendered in the White House and Pentagon last winter, Powell actually emerges as more forceful in his dissidence than he appears in Woodward's account or in the recent tut-tutting New York Times editorial triggered by Woodward's book. The Times scolded Powell post facto for not resigning to manifest his opposition to the president who appointed him.

But Powell's telling the full tale might have renewed the long-standing Washington questioning of the ex-general's loyalty to the political authorities for whom he ostensibly works. That questioning began after Woodward's 1991 book, "The Commanders," made it appear that Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, had revealed to Woodward doubts about the war that he had not disclosed to the first President Bush.

What was it that Karl Marx said? Washington history does repeat itself. The first time it is tragedy, the second time it is a best-seller.

Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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