With his indecision, with his occasional vacillation, someone is bound to conjure up Hamlet in reference to Colin Powell. Not to quibble, but it is Macbeth who comes to my mind -- specifically his soliloquy that begins, "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly." The pity is not that Colin Powell has resigned as secretary of state. The pity is that he did not do so quickly.

Had he resigned during the buildup to the war in Iraq, which he privately opposed, history might award him an asterisk and note that his tenure as secretary of state, while notable for nothing notable, ended over an important disagreement. Had that happened, Powell could then join just two secretaries of state -- William Jennings Bryan and Cyrus Vance -- who resigned because they differed with their presidents, Bryan with Woodrow Wilson, Vance with Jimmy Carter. The best that can be said about Powell is that he disagreed. The worst is that he did nothing significant about it.

This is a harsh judgment, I know, and I make it reluctantly because I have always liked and admired Powell. Most of Washington and a good part of America does as well. He is an enormously likable man, possessed of charm and wit, with a solid sense of the practical. He is, in fact, one of the few in Washington who can claim a doctrine -- the so-called Powell Doctrine -- that calls, among other things, for the avoidance of quagmires by using massive force and having a clear exit strategy. The Bush administration violated it on a grand scale, and not even Powell objected publicly.

The last time I went to see Powell he was ready for me with a column I had written about him last May. I had been at a conference in Jordan, and Powell had come there to make a speech and also to deal with the Arab press. I watched his news conference and noted that his physical location, the Dead Sea, about matched his standing in the region. He was at the lowest point on Earth.

Powell didn't much like that column, but while he had it ready for me, he didn't argue it or wave it in my face. He seemed genuinely convinced I was wrong. But on the paramount issues of the region -- the Iraq war and the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process -- the United States was not only on the defensive, it was being viewed with contempt. It was perceived as anti-Arab, the landlord of Abu Ghraib prison with its abuses, and the invader of Iraq for reasons that seemed specious -- no weapons of mass destruction, among other things.

As for Powell himself, he was viewed as nice but ineffective, a foreign minister who could not speak for his own government. It was well known where Powell stood on many important questions. It was just as well known that the president -- or, more important, the vice president -- disagreed with him.

Among other things, Powell had publicly said the president was fully behind the "road map" to a Middle East peace. Maybe. But Bush did next to nothing about it. Powell implored. Tony Blair implored. But the Middle East brief was not being run out of the State Department; it was being run by neoconservatives on the White House staff. Powell said what he wanted. His opponents did what they wanted.

But nothing compares to Iraq. The decision to go to war was the single most important foreign policy act of George Bush's first term. Powell not only couldn't stop it, he never saw it coming. When the possibility of war first arose, he dismissed it to aides and, by the time he grasped what was happening, it was too late. Powell the soldier saluted and went to war. First, though, he stopped at the United Nations, where he delivered a speech whose facts -- many of them anyway -- were later found to be wrong. That must have pained him -- but not, maybe, shocked him. Before giving the speech, he had gone over to the CIA to personally check the intelligence. That had to mean he was smelling a rat.

Colin Powell came into office with enormous public support and popularity. The tragedy is that he left pretty much the same way. He should have used his immense standing to oppose a war he knew was unwise and was being fought in ways he knew were wrong. He was, paradoxically, in violation of his own doctrine: caught in a quagmire and with no exit strategy.

cohenr@washpost.com