Monday, November 15, 2004


So long, Mr. Secretary

Colin Powell resigned today, as expected. I suppose many will take this to be confirmation that Powell has wanted out for a long time. The Post says that he has "sparred for four years with the more hawkish members of President Bush's war cabinet."

So let the microscopic inspection of his public statements about the resignation begin. For example, when Powell said in an official briefing today that he and the President had "good and fulsome discussions" about his decision, which of the four definitions of "fulsome" did he have in mind? Did he mean the discussions were "characterized by abundance: COPIOUS"? Or were they, per the second definition, "aesthetically, morally, or generally offensive"? (Examples given by Merriam-Webster: "fulsome lies and nauseous flattery -- William Congreve; the devil take thee for a ... fulsome rogue -- George Villiers.") Or were the conversations "fulsome" in that they exceeded the "bounds of good taste"? There is plenty here for conspiracy theorists to mull over.

A large part of me wants to believe that Powell was the one naysayer in a cabinet full of yes-men, but I'm not sure how wishful that thinking is. His resignation letter is certainly "fulsome" regarding the President, as in "excessively complimentary or flattering." If Powell had felt as strongly opposed to the war as some seem to believe, especially once the poor quality of our military intelligence was exposed, he could have done much more with an earlier resignation. It seems clear to me that this is an ordinary resignation, perhaps agreed upon from the moment that Powell agreed to sign on in the first place.

Very little evidence exists in his letter (full image, PDF) for overweening regrets. "I am pleased 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." (Incidentally, that's some fine capitalization work on Global War Against Terror. Maybe that's what Democrats need to do. Forget about "framing," just capitalize things like The Problem Of Poverty And Disease.)

Perhaps an optimistic defender of Powell could dig through this sentence to find surreptitious evidence of his discontent with the President. "See, he said a team launched the GWAT; he was just part of the team." Some of the phrases ("reaffirmed our alliances," "brought the attention of the world to the problem of proliferation") are so counterintuitive that surely Powell knows how untrue they are. Yes, that's it: he knows how misleading these phrases sound, so he's using them with an eye towards reverse psychology. The real Powell is in the last half of the sentence, when he talks about the POPAD; the first part is just what Bush's people told him to say.

I'm not sure. I have no reason to doubt that the Secretary is an honorable man, who has probably had to suffer fools for some time within his own administration. And it would be hard for anyone, peering through the official-ese of briefings and memos, to give a confident judgment of his true motives. Nonetheless, I'm disappointed. For all the loyalty Powell must feel towards the Bush family, here was an opportunity for public criticism that he did not have to pass up. The election is over, the dynasty is secured. (Aha, is that more surreptitious evidence in the first line of the letter? "Now that the election is over ..." See, he was just waiting!)

But why did he wait? And why does he continue to flatter? What does he have to lose now by voicing his concerns? He certainly had a fine model in a resignation letter that was sent to him. Perhaps he is waiting until he is fully out of office to unburden his "heavy heart," like John Brady Kiesling did. But in the meantime, I'm left to wonder whether his concerns about the President's foreign policy ever went as deep as I wish they did.

Collective Improvisation:

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