WASHINGTON -- As Colin Powell prepared this week to leave the State Department, my thoughts wandered back to one of my favorite characters of ancient history -- a Chinese sage who accompanied Genghis Khan and his hordes in the 13th century on their murderous forays.
The Cathayan's name was Ye Liu Chutsai. The tall, bearded man was a lover of books, a fine woodworker, and a student of all the plants and animals that the hordes encountered. But the most important role for the cultured Cathayan was to ameliorate the massive destruction of the great cities of the era of the Mongols. The Khan listened to him alone, and Ye Liu Chutsai was often able, through argument and the clever use of omens and suspicions, to save the lives of tens of thousands of people.
He seemed to be a man who nobly did everything he could to halt or at least attenuate the destruction of the known world -- but within the terrible limits that are often put upon good men caught up in cruel times.
During these last four years, I could not help but think at some moments that Colin Powell could be compared to the good Cathayan. He, too, was able to ameliorate some of the extreme positions of President Bush. He convinced the president to let him go to the United Nations before going to war against Iraq; he tried valiantly to introduce intelligent, workable policies with North Korea, Iran and the Middle East; he oversaw a State Department postwar planning model that could have worked. All, of course, within the limits set for him by the Bush administration.
Indeed, when I interviewed him at the State Department in July 2003, just after the Iraq war had begun, he told me: "I came to this job not as an academic or a diplomat, or a foreign policy think-tank expert, or a person with a very clear political ideology either to the left or the right. I came after a full lifetime as a soldier, and I was in a branch of the military that focused on solving problems -- the pattern in the military that is called the 'estimate of the situation' or 'how you put together the tools to solve the problem.'"
Sitting in his elegant office, he stressed repeatedly that, because of that experience, he was there only to offer political advice to the president. "My grounding is in the idea that the best loyalty you could give to anyone you serve is your best opinion," he said. "I go home and I remember that nobody elected me to anything. That's the way I was raised -- home and army."
But George W. Bush is obviously no Genghis Khan, despite sharing to some degree that male love for warfare. And despite the revealing comparisons of the ancient Cathayan and the modern Colin Powell, his explanation of his "good soldier" role cannot, in the end, justify his ambivalence about using power.
When George W. Bush was running for president the first time, Colin Powell was the most popular man in America. In the summer of 2002, as secretary of state, he warned the president against a war in Iraq and his ideas were coolly rejected. Had he resigned then, there is little question in my mind that he could have stopped the war. (Think of a nationwide discussion led by the trusted Colin Powell.)
Then, even when warned by his own intelligence that the facts were not there about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he got up before the United Nations on Feb. 3, 2003, and made 17 charges, all of them "backed up by facts, evidence, not conjecture" -- and all pathetically wrong.
From then on, this revered man -- this "good soldier" -- never really told the truth to the American people about Iraq, about the cooked intelligence, about the radical intentions of the neocons -- as only he, among the administration, could have.
In fact, there was always a strange ambivalence about him as secretary of state. The man who had fought bravely and killed people in battle did not stand up to the devious people in the White House and Pentagon who had never bothered to serve and mocked everything he stood for.
So when the end of his service as secretary came, effective with his resignation this week, President Bush did not urge him to stay. And by writing out Colin Powell, "W" was also finally overwriting his father's heritage and administration.
On Monday morning, the man heretofore most respected in America opened his staff meeting at the State Department by saying, "Here's the news" and that "It shouldn't be a surprise to any of you." Then he abruptly left the meeting, as his deputy, Richard Armitage, broke the stunned silence by saying, "He sure knows how to take the air out of a room."
Now, Colin Powell -- still charming, intelligent, intellectual and pragmatic, with a lot of his life ahead of him -- is left behind by our fanatic new history-creators. Who will seek out his wisdom now? Certainly not any of the old/new Bush administration. The Bush loyalists, the true believers and the radical neocons -- exactly the people who made all the mistakes -- have taken over the entire government.
In his autobiography, "My American Journey," the old Colin Powell, writing bitterly of Vietnam, wrote how "the top leadership never went to the secretary of defense or the president and said, 'This war is unwinnable the way we are fighting it.' Many of my generation, the career captains, majors and lieutenant colonels seasoned in that war, vowed that when our turn came to call the shots, we could not quietly acquiesce in half-hearted warfare for half-baked reasons that the American people could not understand or support."
And yet, when the Iraq war came, that is exactly what he did. When his turn came to "call the shots," he provided only whispers to a president whose mind was already made up and let the power flow through his fingers. One can only sadly wonder why.
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