With the possible exception of George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Secretary of State Colin Powell is the greatest disappointment among President Bush's top-level administrators.
He seems this inadequate only because so much was expected of the man who beat the odds and made it through a bullet-riddled community in New York City, who fought tenaciously in Vietnam, and who survived four administrations with hardly a scratch, only to find himself as the odd man out in George W. Bush's inner circle.
If Powell had only to deal with President Bush, he could have handled that task with one arm tied behind his back. However, Vice President Dick Cheney is something else again, tough and tenacious, unsentimental and determined to have his way. It is an open secret that Powell and Cheney have long been at odds, according to Washington Post reporter and editor Bob Woodward.
In his latest book, "Plan of Attack," Woodward reveals that, like so many others, where he expected strength in Powell, he uncovered only blind obedience. To his credit, Powell tried to dissuade the president from some decisions on Iraq. But he approached the president with something far less than passion. He was too late; Bush already had made up his mind to topple Saddam Hussein.
To his credit, in early 2002 Powell did issue a powerful warning to Bush: "You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people. You will own all their hopes, aspirations and problems. You'll own it all." Powell called this the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it. But if anything was clear by then, it was that Dick Cheney had won the president's ear. Now there was no turning back.
Powell was more than a little distressed by the war plan. Woodward writes that Powell believed Cheney's intense focus on Saddam and al-Qaida was an unhealthy "fever," that he misread and exaggerated intelligence about the Iraq threat and the alleged terrorist ties, and that he took intelligence and converted uncertainty and ambiguity into fact. Their differences were indelible and intractable.
As Woodward notes, "The top echelon of the Bush administration was noticeably free of those who had seen combat." The president had served in the Texas Air National Guard but had not been in combat. Cheney had never served in the military although he had been defense secretary during the Gulf War. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had been a Navy fighter pilot in the 1950s but not during wartime. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Tenet had not seen military service. Only Powell had been in combat.
Rice took on the role of administration referee, keeping the warring factions at a respectable distance. She may not have prevented friction between Cheney and Powell, but she struggled admirably to keep it behind the White House gates.
The president persisted, however, in drawing Powell to his side. Bush tells Woodward that "there wasn't much debate" and added, rather disdainfully, that although he asked Powell to be with him, "I didn't need his permission."
Thus Powell would put his personal credibility on the line at the United Nations by arguing that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction.
What makes the Powell saga so tragic is that he had an impeccable reputation and a great opportunity, but frittered it away playing politics.
Few expect him to remain on the job should President Bush be re-elected. Powell's great gifts have been badly squandered. He should have resigned while he still possessed the respect and admiration of the public. By now, that seems so very long ago.
Claude Lewis is a retired columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.