Watching Secretary of State Colin Powell present the Bush administration's case against Saddam Hussein to the United Nations took me back to last October, when Harry Belafonte likened Powell to a shufflin', skinnin' and grinnin' house slave who lives to do his master's bidding. "Colin Powell is permitted to come into the house of the master as long as he would serve the master, according to the master's dictates. And when Colin Powell dares to suggest something other than what the master wants to hear, he will be turned back out to pasture," Belafonte told a radio talk show host in California.
With all due respect to Belafonte, that was no slave on display in the packed Security Council chambers this week.
The world witnessed one of this country's most respected public figures, a highly decorated former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and skilled diplomat, deliver a devastating indictment of a regime that has, in violation of U.N. resolutions, continued to harbor and manufacture weapons of mass destruction.
Powell a "house slave"? No nation on the face of the Earth has ever entrusted a slave to argue its case for committing its armed forces and treasury to a military confrontation. Harry Belafonte was wrong. Disgracefully wrong with his insults. And embarrassingly wrong with his choice of target.
Yet I prefaced my remarks about Belafonte with the words "all due respect," because he has always had mine.
When other celebrities were averting their gaze from the social ills around them out of fear of harming their careers, Belafonte put his celebrity status at risk in behalf of the civil rights movement and humanitarian causes around the world. For his having made that sacrifice, I'll still stand when he enters the room. I also applaud him for receiving a tribute at the Bishop John T. Walker Memorial Dinner sponsored by Africare, where I served on the board of directors before joining The Post 13 years ago.
But all the awards in the world cannot put Belafonte above reproach. His personal criticism of Powell was offensive and off-base.
This isn't to say that the substance of Powell's position on Iraq is beyond question. Americans every bit as loyal and committed to the protection of this country as Powell can find themselves in a different place from him on Iraq.
Powell happened to have sold me on the idea that Saddam Hussein is a lying despot who is hiding his death toys from the U.N. inspection team. I, too, think he must be disarmed. But it is possible that others, witnessing the same U.N. performance, might conclude that Powell's evidence was inconclusive or that it offered little solid proof that Iraq still has weapons of mass destruction. There are also those who, after having heard everything the secretary had to say, will still maintain that the risks of inflaming the Muslim world against America and of taking attention away from terrorism outweigh socking it to Saddam Hussein. And there are some who sincerely believe that the presence of many more inspectors will keep Iraq from going forward with its illegal weapons program. Even if you believe, as I do, that Powell's opponents don't have the better arguments, there still is no justification for questioning the sincerity of their motives or their patriotism.
If Belafonte had taken on Powell on the basis of policy or other issues, fair enough. But there is no just cause for questioning the blackness or race loyalty of someone who believes that Saddam Hussein, with his nerve gas, chemical weapons and lust for nuclear devices, is a menace to the world and a threat to all Americans without regard to race, color, creed, gender, age, national origin or sexual orientation. Apply that kind of racial litmus test to war with Iraq and you brand every American officer and enlisted man and woman of color who ships out to the Persian Gulf as a racial traitor. That would be reprehensible.
As we used to say on the corner, Harry put some stuff in the game.
Belafonte had every right to attack Powell's views on the best way to handle Saddam Hussein or for the secretary's presence in an administration that Belafonte opposes. But by resorting to slurs, racial breast-beating and suggestions that Powell was a white man's tool, Belafonte betrayed his own intellectual limitations and inability to marshal the substantive arguments to his side.
There's nothing self-hating about Colin Powell, who stands up for affirmative action and freedom of choice in crowds that don't think well of him for it. Unlike some of us in the darker race who can really do a number on "The Man" while safely in the company of an audience that looks like us, Powell doesn't spend his time preaching to the choir. He has taken it publicly to his Republican Party, and he has been booed for it, too. But he stood tall for what he believed.
The suggestion that he may be a traitor to black folks because he doesn't see the world through Belafonte's lens is as arrogant as it is weak and pitiful. I'm certainly on the other side of many issues championed by the Republican administration of which Powell is a part. But does that make me blacker than Powell? Puhleeze!
The person who abandons what he thinks, who lives out his life on the basis of what he believes others want him to think, all in the name of racial loyalty -- or, equally as bad, to suck up to the perceived powerful -- is the one whose life has been marginalized. He is the real slave.
That's not Colin Powell. And if that simple fact is lost on Harry Belafonte, at least the rest of the world knows it.