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August 2004





Colin Powell Colin Powell
US Secretary of State

Driving by Oakland's magnificent Grand Lake Theatre, you'll see the usual list of movies playing and, at the corner facing Lake Merritt, a patriotic message from the owner, Allen Michaan. There's something compelling and often funny about the succinct personal opinions that Michaan displays on his theatre; plainly-stated opinions are surprisingly rare on billboards and other open-air media – a trait that Clear Channel appears inclined to continue.

One week in June, the message read, "Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft and Rice share absolute guilt for the despicable torture of prisoners" – a reference to the unfolding events at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

The absence of Colin Powell's name from that list only serves to emphasize the strange position Powell now occupies within the Bush administration. He's a lame duck; an honorable man whose acceptable presence is brought to bear on important (yet politically lukewarm) matters such as the crisis in Darfur, but is sidelined on issues that bring his diplomatic moderation into direct conflict with the tone of the administration's hawks.

With respect to the events of Abu Ghraib, the administration appears either indefensibly clueless or shamefully underhanded, depending on which way you look. On the one hand, there was no systematic policy of abuse; these were the actions of a rogue minority within the army's ranks, and the oblivious Mr. Rumsfeld still has his job. On the other hand, there is the legal paper trail that leads back to Alberto Gonzales, documenting the administration's attempts to discern the wiggle room that would allow them to ignore the Geneva Convention. It's no surprise to read reports that Powell 'hit the roof' when he saw Gonzales' memo.

While the Bush administration may not have been directly responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib, it certainly set the tone for them. That's ironic, given Bush's pledge to restore dignity to the White House. How do you compare evasiveness about an extra-marital blow job to the flaunting of respected international treaties on the treatment of prisoners?

It's tempting to see Powell as the good kid who fell in with a bad crowd at high school. But his testimony before the U.N. in February 2003 – in which he made the case for war against Iraq on the basis of Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction – puts him firmly in the same camp as the hawks in the administration, even if he's not sleeping in the same tent. Somewhere, you can almost hear a high school principal saying, "Bush, your behavior's no surprise to me but Powell, I expected better of you."

Some commentators see no future for Powell in public office beyond the end of the current administrative term. I would rather he'd ended his political career earlier by breaking ranks with the administration, rather than being an apologist for them these past several years.

© Andy Currid 2004-2005