If he were any other Cabinet member, he'd be sent packing, but
the rules don't seem to apply to Colin Powell. The popular secretary of
state said last week that the "first step" in dealing with Iraq was to send
in U.N. inspectors to search for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
"Let's see what the inspectors find," Powell urged in an interview with the
BBC. It was a clear challenge to others in the administration who favor a
pre-emptive military strike against Iraq. But more importantly, it was an
effort to take public an internal administration dispute, giving ammunition
to critics who claim President Bush's Iraq policy is in disarray.
Just days before Powell called for a return of U.N. inspectors,
Vice President Dick Cheney gave the strongest and most well-reasoned
argument yet in favor of a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, without waiting for
more international inspections or sanctions. "The risks of inaction are
worse than the risks of action," Cheney declared, warning that U.N.
inspectors might "provide false comfort" and that Saddam Hussein could have
nuclear weapons "fairly soon."
Unlike Powell's, Cheney's remarks came in a scripted speech that
had been thoroughly vetted within the White House. If anything, the vice
president's speech was a signal to dissident voices in the administration
that the debate was no longer whether the U.S. would hit Iraq, but how
quickly troops and equipment could be in place to carry out the attack.
But Powell seems not to have gotten the message -- and appears
to believe that he might still win the debate before the court of public
opinion. It's not the first time Powell has taken his policy disputes
public. Earlier this year, Powell was the lone administration voice arguing
that the U.S. needed Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat as a
partner in the Middle East peace process after others had concluded Arafat
was more trouble than he was worth. Powell was also the chief proponent of a
hard line against the Israelis when they moved into the West Bank following
a series of deadly Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians.
"The consequences of Israel's military action are affecting Israel, the
United States, and the interests of peace and the interests of the political
process," warned Powell, adding that U.S. relationships with some Arab
nations could be "damaged, perhaps irrevocably" if Israel did not withdraw.
This Bush White House is famous for insisting on loyalty and
solidarity within the ranks. So how does Powell get away with giving vent to
his policy disputes in public? It stems from the president's early
relationship to the popular and well-respected Powell. In most presidential
campaigns, it's the aspiring appointees who try to curry favor with the
nominee. Not so with Bush and Powell. It was Bush who courted Powell from
day one -- and Powell seemed to be the one holding all the cards. When Bush
named Powell secretary of state -- his first act as the president-elect
after the contentious Florida election debacle -- he called Powell "an
American hero." At the time, Powell's acceptance of the job was interpreted
by many, especially in the media, as giving legitimacy and stature to a
president who, they claimed, lacked both.
Much has changed in the intervening two years. Bush now has the
overwhelming support of the American public, especially in his conduct of
foreign policy. He's won public approval by showing consistency and
determination to defend America from its enemies. It's Bush, not Powell, who
holds the cards now.
With or without Colin Powell, George W. Bush is commander in
chief, and he deserves the loyalty of all his lieutenants. Powell owes the
president his best advice, even if it differs from others in the
administration, including the vice president. But that advice should be
given in private. If Powell feels it necessary to go public with his
disagreements, maybe he should join the ranks of fellow dissidents James
Baker and Lawrence Eagleburger as a former secretary of state.