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August 30, 2002
Estranged Bedfellows

Power MadWhen President Bush appointed Colin Powell as secretary of state, the praise from the right could hardly have been louder. “Men like Colin Powell,” cooed the Washington Times editorial page, “represent, for every human community, excellence, intellect and capacity.”

Much of the American public still feels this way. With an approval rating of 75 percent, Powell is more popular than any other member of the administration, including the president, whose approval lags behind at 65 percent and shrinking. And with 34 percent giving Powell an “excellent” rating, compared to 24 percent for Bush, most Americans, not unreasonably, are more confident in Powell’s ability to do his job than they are in the president’s ability to do his.

Now, an uncharacteristically public split over invading Iraq has forced many of Powell’s formerly enthusiastic supporters to choose sides. Powell’s reservations about the invasion have been rather obliquely stated—he told a congressional committee in June that Iraq was simply more likely to use its weapons on its neighbors than on the United States. And after Dick Cheney’s warmongering speech in late August, a Powell spokesman said, “We’re doing our utmost ... to get U.N. inspectors back to Iraq.”

This kind of subtle insubordination—plus the exclusion of Powell from the August “military strategy session” at the president’s ranch—has convinced Iraq hardliners that Powell’s opposition to an invasion is more than simply diplomatic reserve.

One National Review author has already proclaimed that “bringing Powell into the cabinet will ... come to be seen as a classic error.” And more rabid rightists were grumbling months ago about Powell subverting his boss’ political agenda with his temperate stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as his support of affirmative action and reproductive choice. Considering the White House’s almost Nixonian obsession with loyalty, could Powell’s days be numbered?

No conservative commentator has called for the secretary’s resignation yet. Perhaps they realize Powell’s calm competence provides an important counterweight to the president’s reckless foreign policy statements. More likely, they recognize how important the popular Powell is to shoring up the GOP’s weak appeal to black voters.

When the New York Times reported in July that Powell’s position was shaky, choruses of administration officials insisted that the president wasn’t considering his departure. Powell himself told reporters he wasn’t even thinking about resigning.

But perhaps he should.

Despite their coyness, it’s clear the hawks see Powell’s presence as one of the few real obstacles to an invasion—violating the War Powers Act being, apparently, the diplomatic equivalent of crossing against the light. (Of course, White House lawyers would argue that because the light was green in 1990, it’s still okay to jaywalk.)

But far from breaking down the final barrier to an American attack, Powell’s resignation may be the only way to stop one. As it stands, Americans are ambivalent about another Gulf War. In theory, they support an invasion by a margin of 57 percent to 36 percent. When the possibility of American casualties is added to the equation, they oppose it, 51 to 40. This opposition would surely solidify should Powell put his career on the line.

Such an act would dramatize both the real risk of American casualties—all the more probable now that Saddam has intimated a willingness to force U.S. troops into urban guerrilla warfare—and draw attention to the likelihood that an invasion would only encourage the use of weapons of mass destruction. After all, Saddam has little incentive to use chemical or biological weapons while he’s in power. If we attack, what’s there to lose?

Were the real motivation for action against Iraq the presence of biological or even nuclear weapons, our national—and international—interests would best be served by a true commitment to U.N. inspections. Only Iraq’s refusal to permit inspections would bring immediate military force. Bush has robbed that threat of any meaning by making it clear that we’re going to invade pretty much no matter what.

A telling weakness of the argument for war has been the way that it quickly crumbles into a very melodramatic name-calling. Faced with the arguments against military action, proponents like The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol simply declare that Powell and other skeptics “hate the idea of a morally grounded foreign policy.”

Saddam is indeed evil, but this is an awfully convenient time for the United States to start choosing its enemies solely based on that criterion (we’ve propped up leaders just as evil, and some worse, from Pinochet to the Taliban). But where do good and evil lie in the decisions that come after an invasion? Which way does the moral compass point when it comes to the numerous allies we would lose for the sake of subduing a single foe? How do the categories of good and evil help us decide what budget cuts would be made to pay for a war? And is good or evil served by setting back further the already dismal chances for peace in Israel?

Morality is a characteristic of individuals, not administrations, and bravery does not always take the form of a willingness to go into battle. Powell’s reasons for opposing an invasion may indeed be more pragmatic than moral: He realizes the importance of our alliances and the risks of unilateralism. But in the present invade-first-ask-questions-later climate, the easy thing to do would be to advocate aggression. Powell’s reluctance to follow marching orders looks very brave indeed.


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