Falling on His Sword

Sunday, October 1, 2006

ON WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 2004, eight days after the president he served was elected to a second term, Secretary of State Colin Powell received a telephone call from the White House at his State Department office. The caller was not President Bush but Chief of Staff Andrew Card, and he got right to the point.

"The president would like to make a change," Card said, using a time-honored formulation that avoided the words "resign" or "fire." He noted briskly that there had been some discussion of having Powell remain until after Iraqi elections scheduled for the end of January, but that the president had decided to take care of all Cabinet changes sooner rather than later. Bush wanted Powell's resignation letter dated two days hence, on Friday, November 12, Card said, although the White House expected him to stay at the State Department until his successor was confirmed by the Senate.

After four long years, Powell had anticipated the end of his service and sometimes even longed for it. He had never directly told the president but thought he had made clear to him during the summer of 2004 that he did not intend to stay into a second term.

There had been public speculation as the election drew near that the president might ask the secretary of state to reenlist, at least temporarily. Powell was still the most popular member of Bush's team, far more popular with the public than the president himself. Senior Powell aides were convinced that the secretary anticipated an invitation to stay, and they were equally certain that he intended to accept. The approaching elections in Iraq, hints of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the rumored departure of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a principal Powell nemesis, made the next six months look like a rare period of promise for diplomacy.

The president himself made no contact with Powell after Card's call. For two days, the only person at the State Department Powell told about it was his deputy and friend of decades, Richard Armitage. Powell dropped off his resignation letter, as instructed, after typing it himself on his home computer. (The White House later pointed out a typo and sent it back to be redone.) Loath to reveal either surprise or insult, he used the letter to claim the decision to leave as his own.

"Dear Mr. President:" he wrote. "As we have discussed in recent months, I believe that now that the election is over the time has come for me to step down as Secretary of State . . . effective at your pleasure."

He was pleased, Powell said, to "have been part of a team that launched the Global War Against Terror, liberated the Afghan and Iraqi people, brought the attention of the world to the problem of proliferation, reaffirmed our alliances, adjusted to the Post-Cold War World and undertook major initiatives to deal with the problem of poverty and disease in the developing world. In these and in so many other areas, your leadership was the driving force of our success."

AFTER HIS DEPARTURE FROM THE STATE DEPARTMENT IN JANUARY 2005, Powell traveled the lecture circuit, making paid speeches on leadership and U.S. foreign policy to corporate boards and industry conventions. He never spoke publicly about the specific circumstances of his resignation as secretary of state except to say, when asked, that Cabinet reshuffles were normal at the end of a four-year mandate, and that his departure had been a "mutual decision" between him and the president.

He artfully brushed aside inquiries about the many published accounts of deep ideological schisms that had rent Bush's national security team throughout the first term and the private humiliations he reportedly had endured at the hands of powerful colleagues.

Audiences often asked about his public role in promoting and defending what many now consider to be the most ill-advised act of Bush's presidency: the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Powell usually offered a tepid defense, allowing only that he wished there had been more troops committed to the war and its aftermath, and a better plan to rebuild the country.

Powell had thrown his considerable personal and professional reputation behind the administration's charges that Iraq possessed chemical, biological and perhaps even nuclear weapons, and posed an imminent threat to the United States. In a crucial speech to the United Nations Security Council six weeks before the invasion was launched, he had single-handedly convinced many skeptical Americans that the threat posed by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was real.

But the war had gone sour almost from the moment U.S. troops rolled triumphantly into Baghdad two months later. Powell's credibility had been seriously undermined when the weapons he cited as the main justification for invasion turned out not to exist.

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