Washington’s Power/Powell Politics

How does the Bush Administration treat its own Secretary of State? Stephan Richter provides an inside Washington perspective.

September 6, 2002

How does the Bush Administration treat its own Secretary of State? Stephan Richter provides an inside Washington perspective.

The act of booing Colin Powell was understandable in certain ways, but was no act of civic heroism. Rather, it was akin to shooting the messenger.

The trouble is that, in hitting on Mr. Powell, the activists gathered at the summit took aim at the one person in the Bush cabinet who can be credited with a balanced world view — and a man who is respected by international heads of state.

As a matter of fact, on an issue of similar magnitude — the contemplated war against Iraq — Mr. Powell, a former general and chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the lone hero who dares to oppose his president.

But one would be naive to believe that such display of strong courage and good judgment as Secretary Powell commonly and routinely displays — would go unpunished in the inner circles of the Bush Administration.

In order for Secretary Powell to get his lesson, the Machiavellis inside Mr. Bush’s inner circle had devised a fine strategy indeed. First, they schemed, let Colin Powell go to Johannesburg. Undeserved as it is, he would be the one to take the heat for the President of the United States from a global community by and large united in opposition to Mr. Bush's views.

And that’s exactly what happened. Mr. Powell was booed for mouthing his support of policies he does not really believe in. In fact, like a man from the President’s own security detail, he had to take a bullet for the man he serves as foreign minister.

So far, so good. After all, in the high-stakes political game, it is not particularly new — or crude — to have one’s own cabinet member take a figurative body blow from protesters. It comes along with the turf, as they say.

But as if that were not enough, the Bush team could not leave it at that exercise in practical humiliation. No, it had to go further than that.

In order to fully emasculate the man in front of the world, it was leaked — and dutifully reported by a too compliant press corps — that Colin Powell was intending to resign at the end of Mr. Bush’s first term.

As well he should, given the narrow-minded path down which President Bush, led by Vice President Cheney, wants to take the United States.

But the calculation by the political and media operatives in the White House was obviously a different one. By emasculating Mr. Powell right before a major international conference, it was sending a powerful signal.

"You might as well stop talking to the man. He’s a loner — and a goner," that message read. Any foreign country’s leaders who want to delude themselves might keep on talking to Mr. Powell — if they so choose. But they might as well talk to a private citizen, the implicit message further reads.

Trying to influence the policy of the United States by talking to Colin Powell — the one man who is respected internationally — in short, has become an exercise in futility.

All of these nasty schemings do not only leave a bitter aftertaste in everyone’s mouth about the torched earth approach of Mr. Bush’s operatives even right at home — and inside their own tent.

No, the fact of the matter is that Mr. Powell is being punished for his loyal opposition to the President’s policies. In so many words, he regards them as adventurous (even though it was the German chancellor, not Mr. Powell, who actually used that phrase).

Ultimately, when one realizes the downright nasty ways with which the Bush team deals with internal dissent, the bitter aftertaste left by this sequence of events becomes truly unpleasant.

To be sure, this vengeful mode of operating is not exactly complimentary to the nation that has always held its head high for its vivacious debates and lively democracy.

If anything, the way in which Mr. Bush's operatives apparently seek to smoke out internal dissent is reminiscent of other kinds of regimes.

For the Bush Administration, it is one thing to go on a war path with Iraq. However, it is quite another thing to shut down vital lines of communications to the rest of the world.

The president may be determined in his path of action. But scheming to take out the one man in his team who still has the respect of the WOW — that is, the world-outside-Washington — is a short-sighted maneuver if there ever was one. In an administration that is unparalleled in modern U.S. history for its lack of open debate, that is a step that can only backfire on the entire United States.