Saturday, March 22, 2003

Why Colin Powell shouldn't resign. New York Times columnist Bill Keller has called on Secretary of State Colin Powell to resign. Keller is a former managing editor of the Times and a legitimate bigfoot.

The first time I read Keller's column, I thought it was brilliant and right on the money. The second time -- no less brilliant, but ultimately wrong-headed. Keller seems overly concerned about Powell's ability to maintain his own personal credibility. He should be more concerned about the country.

Keller's take, which I'm oversimplifying, is that George W. Bush has rejected Powell's internationalist, multilateralist approach, and that Powell is essentially fighting a rear-guard action, occasionally slowing Bush down and ameliorating his and his hawkish advisers' worst instincts but not really changing the ultimate outcome in any significant way. Keller writes of Powell:

His formidable skills have been too much engaged in a kind of guerrilla war for the soul of the president, and it has shown. Critics in the administration and colleagues on this page have unfavorably compared his performance in the buildup to war with James Baker's whirlwind of global coalition-building before the gulf war in 1991. But Mr. Baker was operating as his president's right arm; Mr. Powell was busy protecting his right flank.

True enough. But here's the money graf, and, if you look closely, you'll see more reasons for Powell's staying than going:

I can't count the number of times in the past two years I've heard -- occasionally from my own lips -- the observation that the Bush administration would be a much scarier outfit without Colin Powell. Allied diplomats, international businessmen and the American foreign policy mainstream have regarded him as the lone grown-up in an administration with a teenager's twitchy metabolism and self-centered view of the world. He was the one who acknowledged that other countries had legitimate interests, and that in the application of America's unmatched power there was a case for generosity because what goes around comes around. His pragmatic caution offset a moralism that sometimes verged on recklessness. If others, including the president, seemed given to hype and swagger, Mr. Powell's word seemed bankable -- at least until the White House began misspending his credibility in its rush to the war that couldn't wait.

Okay, so it's been an ugly time for Powell, and he's losing some of his hard-won credibility. But is that a reason to resign? Powell is well into his 60s; the next step is semi-retirement, probably in academia. I'd rather have him keep playing the lone "grown-up" role for as long as he can stand it.

Imagine Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and Paul Wolfowitz surveying the scene after they've finished destroying the regime of Saddam Hussein. As they look out at other trouble spots -- North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Syria, Iran -- they are going to be feeling very, very sure of themselves, full of smugness and vindication after having triumphed over their critics.

Now ask yourself this: do you not want Colin Powell in the room with them?

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