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February 25, 2005
Colin Powell, Unbound

Colin Powell has given one of his most extensive interviews after his resignation last month as Secretary of State, and the London Telegraph publishes it in tomorrow's edition. While Powell talks about several of the controversial moments of his term at State, he pointedly refused to discuss his thoughts about President George Bush, out of loyalty and a sense that his proximity still is too close to comment.

The most controversial part of the interview comes in Powell's response to the WMD question. Powell leaves no doubt that he feels personally stained by the failure to find WMD, but he insists the administration's belief was genuine:

And now Colin Powell becomes more direct: "I'm very sore. I'm the one who made the television moment. I was mightily disappointed when the sourcing of it all became very suspect and everything started to fall apart.

"The problem was stockpiles. None have been found. I don't think any will be found. There may not have been any at the time. It was the best judgment of the intelligence community, not something I made up. Clinton had been told the same thing."

Matter-of-factly, he adds: "I will forever be known as the one who made the case."

With five days' notice from the President, Powell worked it up: "Every single word in that presentation was screened and approved by the intelligence community." He cites the case of the aluminium tubes, which he presented to the world as being, probably, for centrifuges intended for nuclear weapons: "We sat down with a roomful, of analysts. The Director of Central Intelligence [George Tenet] - he's essentially the referee on these occasions - sits down and says: 'We have concluded that they're not rocket bodies: it's our judgment that these are for centrifuges'.

"So that's what I said, though I mentioned signs of differences of opinion. To this day, the CIA has not said that they aren't for centrifuges."

Perhaps because everyone believes that Powell opposed the war in the first place, people think he will reverse course on the war now that he has no connection to the Bush administration except personal loyalty. However, Powell instead insists that he supported the war itself and still does, even if he disagreed with post-war planning:

Which brings us to Iraq. Here, Powell agrees, that "the tensions between America and Europe have been fantastic - it's a source of dismay to me."

But he doesn't apologise for most of what happened. "In less than two years, we have got rid of a dictator, introduced a basic law, leading to an election that people really came out for - except for the Sunnis, who did not come out as we'd hoped."

He delicately indicates that he's pleased with the choice of Ibrahim Jaafari as prospective prime minister rather than his chief rival Ahmed Chalabi, and confidently predicts that the constitution will be ratified and a new election held by the end of the year. The Iraqi people are finally making their own choices.

What went wrong for Iraq was not the military campaign, which was "brilliantly fought", but the transition to "nation-building" that followed. In Powell's view, there were "enough troops for war but not for peace, for establishing order. My own preference would have been for more forces after the conflict."

Another meme in the marketplace has Colin Powell serving as the reluctant diplomat, unhappily working the UN while he supposedly knew George Bush was undermining his efforts to reach an international consensus. He acknowledges that happened regarding some Middle Est issues, but emphatically declares himself to be one of the architects of the Iraq war. He also told the Telegraph that he never stewed silently about his reservations regarding the postwar challenges:

It is time to take Colin Powell back a little. Everyone knows, I say, that you had your doubts about the war in Iraq, but it seems you never fully expressed them. Don't you regret not being more upfront?

Powell comes back hard: "I was upfront with the President, who is the person I'm paid to be upfront with." In early August 2002, the two men had dinner together, and Powell sounded his warning: "My caution was that you need to understand that the difficult bit will come afterwards - the military piece will be easy. This place [Iraq] will crack like a crystal goblet, and it'll be a problem to pick up the bits. It was on this basis that he decided to let me see if we can find a UN solution to this."

They were all in it together, Powell emphasises. "Everyone agreed - Don [Rumsfeld], Dick [Vice-President Cheney] and Condi [Rice, at that time National Security Adviser, now Powell's successor at State]. I had to take the brunt of the criticism. I had no love for that regime: I'd been hearing for more than 10 years how we should have gone on to Baghdad in the first Gulf War - even though we'd never discussed going on to Baghdad."

He knew, he says, that if the UN route failed, this would produce war. "When you get to the branch in the road which is either diplomacy or war, I'm not going to walk away from either one of those. I fully dispatched my obligations to the President."

Powell also had his issues with the Europeans, especially the French. Powell responds diplomatically when asked about this, but the frustration is evident in his wistful responses. He mentions nothing about the widely reported stab in the back the French gave him when they refused to support the 17th resolution, but he does note his disappointment with de Villepin in how the alliance fell apart:

The diplomatic deal-maker still ruminates on the might-have-beens at the Security Council: "I could maybe have got that last vote. I was doing better than de Villepin [the then French foreign minister], believe it or not. I'd got the three Africans... But, at that point, it became moot because of the French veto. Therefore, I talked to the President and said: "This is tough and it's going to fail anyway, so we shouldn't force our friends to vote on it. They all breathed a huge sigh of relief."

What did he feel about the French? "Disappointed. Not a good time in our relationship. But since then, I've been able to work with them to get troops late on a February evening to go to Haiti. I don't have the luxury of saying, `I'm not going to work with you.'"

I expect this interview to get cherry-picked in the blogosphere, but all in all, it matches up with everything we've heard about Powell's tenure at State. In fact, it comes up to significantly less than we'd imagined, especially when it comes to purported rifts with Donald Rumsfeld. He admits that he thought Rumsfeld's "Old Europe" terminology bothered him, but other than that, Powell doesn't discuss any policy differences between the two. He also discourages speculation about a return to public service, especially in the near term -- and as expected, flat-out declines any interest in electoral politics. Whatever the office, Powell won't run for it.

The interview provides an interesting, if guarded, look at one of the more intriguing and impressive personalities in American politics. It's worth reading the entire lengthy article. This interview practically asks aloud why Powell gave his first post-office interview to a British conservative broadsheet instead of any American media outlet. Perhaps Powell, ever the diplomat, intended on sending yet another subtle message.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at February 25, 2005 8:49 PM

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Tracked on February 26, 2005 6:38 PM

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