On Sunday Colin Powell sat with his back to the Dead Sea and took questions from the American and Arab media. He was asked about Abu Ghraib prison and how things were going generally in Iraq. He was asked about Israeli-Palestinian relations and whatever happened to the "road map." He was asked about the weapons of mass destruction that he had told the world were in Iraq and that have not materialized. Powell happened to be talking at the lowest point below sea level in the world. It perfectly matched his standing in this region -- and maybe in his career.
The secretary of state is a short-timer now. Although he manages to deflect the question, it is assumed that he will not choose to serve in a second Bush administration -- and he might not be asked to anyway. He has been at odds with other, more hawkish, senior members of the Bush administration, particularly Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon and Dick Cheney, who sits at Bush's right hand. The very doctrine to which he lent his name, the Powell Doctrine, was brushed aside when the United States went to war in Iraq. Instead of a massive number of troops, a minimal number were used. The results are before us now -- a country where security cannot be guaranteed or, on a given day, even envisioned.
In this region, Powell is seen as a much-diminished figure who is more a spokesman for policies he opposes than a policymaker with real clout at the White House. His once immense stature and popularity are gone -- and not without regret. Had he gotten his way -- on Iraq, on the Israeli-Palestinian problem -- U.S. prestige in the Arab world would be far higher. Things may change, but for the moment the antipathy toward America, and Americans, in this region is downright palpable, and Colin Powell is thought not to matter very much at all.
Powell started here with a formal address. "Let me, for a moment, take off my diplomat's suit and put back on the uniform that I proudly wore for 35 years, as a soldier of the American people, as a soldier in the United States Army," he said. Then he described his shock at what he had seen in the photos from Abu Ghraib, the prison where Iraqi detainees were sexually humiliated and physically abused. As someone who met Powell back in his Army days, I found his contrition -- his shame -- moving. This was an awfully proud soldier talking about the institution that had taken a black kid from the streets of New York to the highest levels of the U.S. government. His apology, and it was that, could not have come easily.
Yet his audience was stone cold. What it expected from him is hard to say. But the anger at the United States is so great -- along with the strong feeling that the prison abuses had to be sanctioned at the top -- that no mere apology could suffice. In this part of the world, only a high-level resignation will do: Rumsfeld, obviously, but he, after offering an apology, swiftly visited Abu Ghraib. All over the Arab world, Rumsfeld was seen on television embracing the prison's personnel. One Arab diplomat I talked to could not contain his dismay. The "optics," as he called it, were awful.
In a way, Powell has become the personification of all that has gone wrong with Bush's foreign policy. Everyone knows, via Bob Woodward, that Powell had deep reservations about the war. Everyone knows that the secretary favored a more even-handed approach toward the Israeli-Palestinian mess, including an insistence that Israel dismantle illegal settlements with dispatch. About a year ago, Powell told me he had the president's full backing in this approach, but Bush has sided -- in policy and body language -- with the Sharon government. Even as Powell was here deploring Israel's intention to demolish housing in the Gaza Strip, Israel plowed ahead -- and Bush once again said Israel had a right to defend itself. Powell, it seems, speaks only for himself.
The mess at Abu Ghraib is both a vindication and an indictment of Powell. He famously warned Bush of the consequences and difficulties of an occupation -- "you break it, you own it," he said of Iraq. At the same time, the excuses now coming from military personnel accused of the Abu Ghraib abuses are not all that different from Powell's reasons for supporting what he opposed. They said they were following orders. So does he.