Casualty of War
Four years into an embattled Bush administration, Colin Powell is hard at work at something he's never had to worry about before: salvaging his legacy.
By Wil S. Hylton
A few weeks ago, I went to see Colin Powell in his office. The room was tiny and the light dim. An Asian lamp on his desk cast a faint glow onto the walls, and the shades of his windows were drawn, giving the room a padded, womblike feel. Everything was in earth tones. When I commented on the warm ambience, Powell shrugged his considerable shoulders and said, "Yeah, because I have stuff lying all over the place." It was true. He was surrounded by a jumble of paperwork and clutter. The bookshelves behind his desk were jammed with old photographs and volumes of world history, some upright on the shelves, others crooked and diagonal, halfway to falling off. In one corner, a podium was pressed against a window, as if he had been practicing a speech to the drapes, while in another corner his suit jacket was slung over a cherry valet stand, hovering above the floor like a ghost. In place of the jacket, Powell wore a dark blue windbreaker with the words BOYS & GIRLS club on the breast. He sat behind his desk with a calm, curious look.
I had come to see Powell because, for several weeks, his closest friends and colleagues had been telegraphing a story to me. Powell was finished, they'd said. Exhausted. Frustrated. Bitter. He was uncomfortable with the president's agenda and fatigued from his battles with the Pentagon. His reputation had been stained by his speech at the U.N. in February 2003, when he insisted that Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, and as the journalist Bob Woodward has noted in Plan of Attack, he was despondent about being cut out of the war plan in Iraq. In the months since those humiliations, as the body count mounted and the WMDs never appeared, his enthusiasm for the job had waned. His enthusiasm for the whole administration had waned. As his mentor from the National War College, Harlan Ullman, described it, "This is, in many ways, the most ideological administration Powell's ever had to work for. Not only is it very ideological, but they have a vision. And I think Powell is inherently uncomfortable with grand visions like that." Or as Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said of Powell's disastrous speech at the U.N. last year, "It's a source of great distress for the secretary." Or as Powell's chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson, put it, "He's tired. Mentally and physically."
None of Powell's friends had made any pretense of speculating about or guessing at his feelings. They spoke for him, openly and on the record. Some even went so far as to alert me when something they said was not coming from Powell or had not been expressed by him. And now, at the tail end of my reporting, I was going to hear from Powell himself. He had invited me in for a rare one-hour chat. Not to the formal sitting room, where he entertains state visitors—the room he calls "the funeral parlor"—but the dark, private cubbyhole where he actually spends his day. As I settled into my chair, I couldn't help wondering what he wanted to say. I knew from his staff that he had been briefed on my interviews with his friends and knew exactly what I had been told, in detail. But I also knew that however disenchanted and humiliated he may have felt, however severe his disillusionment and frustration, he was a soldier, unlikely to speak out against a sitting president or discuss his battles with the administration. It seemed unlikely he would even admit the urge to retire. So where, exactly, did that leave us?
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It is rare for a member of any president's cabinet to stand alone, in public, on purpose, about a subject of any significance. In the warped logic of presidential politics, consensus equals clarity, and dissent is pure treason. But even within this arid intellectual landscape, the show of solidarity put on by the Bush administration for the past three years must rank among the greatest pieces of performance art in the last half century. Even as senior members of this administration have brawled in private, feuding over nearly every major piece of American foreign policy, not just the war in Iraq and the reconstruction of Afghanistan but also U.S. policy in China, Russia, Taiwan, Korea, Iran, Syria, and Libya, even as neoconservative firebrands like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle have struggled against traditional conservatives like Colin Powell to export American democracy around the globe, even as the schism between the State Department and the Pentagon has become increasingly venomous and personal, the White House has been scrambling to keep the whole mess under wraps, to maintain the illusion that the president's "dream team" is still very dreamy—or, at the very least, a team.
To some degree, this performance has been a success. Buffered by an unskeptical media and a largely uninterested public, the administration has contrived a quivering chorus line that almost has the sound of music. Photographers are invited into Don Rumsfeld's office on the outer ring of the Pentagon to shoot cheerful B-roll images of the SecDef chatting on the phone with his old pal the SecState, while books like The Rise of the Vulcans portray a glimmering backstory of the Bush war cabinet as a cordial gang of old friends, dating back to the Nixon administration, who work so well together because they have worked together for so long. In the clutch, even the most senior White House officials are trotted out to perform this elaborate song and dance, singing the praises of, well, themselves.
I got a small but precious glimpse of the show when, shortly after I interviewed Colin Powell, I met with Condoleezza Rice in her office at the White House, a bright and white and airy room that looked like a wedding cake turned inside out, where Rice sat prim and pretty beneath an Impressionist painting in a black business suit and bright red lipstick, smiling politely as she lied through her teeth about the war between the State Department and the Pentagon, as though no such conflict could possibly exist, not in her immaculate White House, and the century-long battle between the two agencies had, in fact, come to a screeching halt on January 20, 2001, when she and the Texan came to town.
I asked, for example, about the internal debate over Taiwan, an area of rising tension in the cabinet. For decades the Taiwanese government has been agitating for independence from China, and in recent years the Pentagon has been feeding its fire, assuring Taiwan that the United States will support it against China—a situation that the former director of policy and planning at the State Department, Richard Haas, described to me as "the one issue that could actually, if things ever got out of hand, light a fuse leading to any sort of direct military confrontation between the United States and China." Meanwhile, to avoid such a crisis, the State Department has been trying to put the fire out, to muzzle Taiwan and tone down its rhetoric. But when I broached the subject with Rice, she insisted that the whole struggle for power was a myth. No such drama existed.
"There isn't some kind of little DOD [Department of Defense] cabal out there," she snapped, "saying things to Taiwan that the rest of the government isn't saying."
On the basis of her indignation, Rice may have sounded convincing, except that a few days earlier, Powell's chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson, had told me just the opposite. As he put it, Taiwan is "another place where you get a lot of tension, because there are literally people from the Defense Department on that island every week. Every week. And have been for three years. And many of those people—I know, because some of them are my former colleagues and friends—are delivering messages to Taiwan that Taiwan needn't worry. Meanwhile, we're trying to maintain a more balanced attitude."
And yet even after I had read Wilkerson's quote aloud to Rice, she refused to budge from her script. "As a government," she said weakly, "we use all of the elements together in order to effect policy. They're working always in concert."
Of course, this was even more absurd. The notion that the departments of State and Defense are "always in concert" is not only false; it has never been true and isn't supposed to be. If anything, a certain level of tension between the two departments is a good sign, a reflection of a working government, of the push and pull between diverging interests, the balance of power between military might and diplomatic maneuvering. The idea that the departments of State and Defense are "always in concert" is actually somewhat scary and Orwellian. Fortunately, it's a lie. Unfortunately, the truth is scarier than the lie.
In reality, the chasm that has emerged between State and Defense over the past three years is wider than it has been at any point in recent history, a division that transcends anything remotely healthy or useful. It is no longer just a difference of strategy and logistics but of fundamental values, principles, and philosophy. As Powell's friend and mentor, Harlan Ullman—the man who coined the phrase shock and awe—told me, "There's an ideological core to Bush, and I think it's hard for Powell to penetrate that." When asked about Powell's relationship with Vice President Cheney— Woodward's book described the two as barely on speaking terms; Rice then claimed that they are "more than on speaking terms: They're friendly...very friendly"— Ullman said, "I can tell you firsthand that there is a tremendous barrier between Cheney and Powell, and there has been for a long time. It's like McCain saying that his relations with the president are 'congenial,' meaning McCain doesn't tell the president to go fuck himself every time." Then he added, "Condi's a jerk." Or as Larry Wilkerson described his boss's role in the cabinet, "He has spent as much time doing damage control and, shall we say, apologizing around the world for some less-than-graceful actions as he has anything else."
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To be fair, the impression of Powell as odd man out has never been exactly right. Although it is true that during his tenure at the State Department, Powell has stood apart from the rest of the administration, providing a voice of moderation and restraint to a cabinet known for neither, his isolation has not always been a hindrance. While he may have been an "odd man" during most of the Bush presidency, he has not always been "out." In fact, what is most intriguing about Powell is not his distinctness from the rest of the Bush team but the way he has leveraged it to his advantage.
When he first came into office—and remember that this was back in the old world, a time of prosperity and peace, of surplus and security, before Donald Rumsfeld moved into your TV and the neocons ran off with policy, before the president had a foreign policy, back when Powell was still the great and solitary behemoth of the administration—his distinction seemed more of an asset than an obstacle. He was not only the most famous member of the new cabinet, a man many voters would have picked for president, who had practically been begged to run in '96, who was rich and famous and black, and whose presence on the Bush ticket was a deciding factor for many voters—but he was also, in a less dramatic way, simply the best prepared for his job. He had seen the world from both sides and had earned his stripes from each, had led wars and fought them and fought against them, too. He was a kid from the Bronx, not a product of West Point but of the ROTC program at City College of New York, an army infantryman who served voluntarily through the Vietnam War, and over the years his experience as a grunt had only enhanced his commitment to diplomacy.
In the early 1980s, as the military assistant to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, he glimpsed the world of diplomacy for the first time, traveling to the State Department every other Wednesday morning with Weinberger and Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage. They would all sit down across the breakfast table from Secretary of State George Shultz and his two assistants, and the two secretaries would go to war.
"They would say hello to each other," remembers Armitage with a chuckle, "and Powell and I would put our heads down, and the two would begin to argue about the breakfast menu, and it continued for an hour, and then we'd leave. So this is not a new tennis game!"
As Ronald Reagan's national-security adviser near the end of the decade, Powell had witnessed the same battle from the president's side, listening as each agency jockeyed for the president's attention. Returning to active duty under the first President Bush as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his political experience had made an unmistakable mark: He became the leading voice against the gulf war, stretching the boundaries of his position and sometimes even working against his own boss, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, to push for a diplomatic solution.
"Colin was very good that way," remembers Brent Scowcroft, who was national-security adviser at the time. "I never heard him contradict Dick Cheney directly, but by the end of the meeting, you always knew where Colin stood. He was very deft at things like that. Colin kept thinking—longer than I did or Dick Cheney did, and probably longer than the president—that there might be a diplomatic ending to it. He was very cautious, was not so sure how deep our interests were, not so sure that we couldn't get Saddam Hussein to pull out. It was just a different perspective."
Arriving at the State Department in 2001, Powell was no stranger to the political battlefield; if it seemed inevitable that he would clash with neocons at the Pentagon—men like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, who had never been in uniform but were often eager to deploy troops—it seemed equally inevitable that Powell would squash such adversaries under the broad thumb of his experience.
Oh, he would say, it's easy to talk about "ending states" when you've never been sent to end one, when you've never watched a man split apart in a rain of shrapnel. But for an old grunt who's been on the front lines, who tromped through the elephant grass in Vietnam, who took a punji stake through the foot and saw ears cut off as trophies, who had slept beneath the aching odor of a fifty-five-gallon oil drum stuffed with burning human feces, for a man like Colin Powell, the path of diplomacy had a battle-born allure that no draft-dodging neocon could possibly comprehend, and he meant for them to know it.
Sure enough, from the early days of the Bush term, Powell cut a wide swath. When an American spy plane went down in China just two months into his tenure, when the air crew was taken into custody and the neocons at the Pentagon went ballistic, acting as if it were proof positive that China was the next Soviet Union, it was Powell who worked the phones night and day, negotiating, soothing, nudging, assuring the Chinese that although the United States would not formally apologize for the spies or the plane, he was willing to use the word sorry in a formal statement, and when that wasn't good enough, offered the words very sorry, which, almost unbelievably, worked, becoming the key to the lock that opened the door and brought the prisoners home eleven days after the crash. Powell kept on. By August his stature was difficult to deny; you could measure his influence in direct proportion to that of his counterpart in the Defense Department, a geezer named Rumsfeld whose last significant job in government had been under Gerald Ford and who had spent the first eight months of the new administration fading into oblivion, harping about the need for a missile-defense shield. Rummy was on the outs, everybody knew it, a relic of the Cold War, out of favor, out of touch, out of steam. As Rumsfeld's close friend Frank Gaffney told me in the fall of 2001, "The prognoses of his imminent demise were very much in evidence before September 11."
And then it came. Like a political earthquake, September 11 shifted everything, and Colin Powell found himself on new ground—on the far side of American policy, gazing across the Potomac at the Pentagon, at Rumsfeld strutting across the Parade Grounds with his granite jaw thrust skyward, Cheney and Wolfowitz tagging behind. Suddenly, the president, who had campaigned to reduce the U.S. military presence overseas, planted his feet firmly in the war department and began hurling verbal hand grenades around the globe: "axis" of this, "evildoer" that, drawing lines in the sand and preparing for combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, branding Syria and Iran and North Korea as potential targets, severing the lines of communication with some of our oldest European allies.
As Powell's dominance evaporated, his alienation intensified. Far from the commanding figure he had struck in the summer, towering above the rest of the cabinet, now his isolation was real. Now he struggled just to be heard, to be in the loop, to stay connected to the president's inner circle. As the gears of war rolled on without him, as it became clear that the issue was not if but when, Powell found himself pressing for the administration to pause and consider, to make some gesture, however small, toward the world community before attacking a sovereign nation unprovoked; but even in this, the tables turned on him. He was sent to do the job himself, to carry the administration's water before a skeptical United Nations, the man who had argued against the invasion now making the case for it. In what would become the lowest point of his career, an event that will taint his legacy forever, that will be written into his obituary one day, Colin Powell leaned forward in his chair at the General Assembly on February 5, 2003, with the world listening—and listening precisely because it was he, not some old hawk like Don Rumsfeld or some ideologue like Paul Wolfowitz but Colin Powell, a man whose word actually meant something—sitting there in front of those preposterous PowerPoint presentations and blurry satellite images, he raised his voice in outrage and said things that simply were not true: that Iraq had stockpiles of chemical weapons, that Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat, that the Baath Party was linked to Al Qaeda, that these were "not assertions" but "facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence," and that the evidence of it all was clear when he knew that it probably wasn't.
"The trade-off," says Harlan Ullman, "was 'Go to the U.N., go to Congress, slow this thing down; it's not going to be regime change, it's going to be weapons of mass destruction.' And for that, Powell stayed a loyal member of the administration."
But if Powell's capitulation seemed complete that day, if his U.N. speech had the aura of pure surrender, then like so many things in the Bush administration, it was only an illusion. Because since then, without much fanfare or publicity, Powell has scratched and clawed his way back to a position of some significance in the White House. He has pulled the reins on Taiwan, quelling its tensions with China, has used that leverage to gain China's assistance on the escalating North Korean crisis, has opened the first real line of diplomacy with Libya in more than thirty years (and, in the process, has begun a real disarmament there, as opposed to the artificial disarming of Iraq), has helped persuade Russia to engage the Iranian nuclear crisis, and has kept American troops out of Syria and Iran, all against the fervent objections of his adversaries in the Pentagon.
"The focus on Iraq gave Powell some flexibility that he might not have had," says Ullman. "There was a lot of reluctance to do a lot of things that he wanted to do. Some in the administration wanted a much tougher position vis-à-vis North Korea and Iran. And he prevailed. Some wanted a tougher position vis-à-vis China. He prevailed. The fact of the matter is that Powell has been able to prevail over foreign policy in much of the world, and Iraq has been kind of an odd man out."
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When I met with Powell in his office, he had the bearing of an old lion content in his den, an easy confidence that almost seemed to escape the boundaries of his physical presence, wafting through the air around him like a silver cloud. Colin Powell is, in a word, gigantic. Not in any particular way; he is not especially tall or muscular or thick, does not stand especially upright in his shoes, does not lean into your personal space to impose himself the way some military men do. He is simply big. When he shakes your hand, his palm wraps around yours like a baseball glove fielding a penny, and when he smiles, his eyes are alight as if the world were lit from within.
I confess to being somewhat charmed when he began regaling me with colorful behind-the-scenes stories—even if, in retrospect, it became clear to me that his stories were fraught with all the geopolitical import of a turnip. However much influence he may have regained in the past year, it became clear that he can no longer afford to enjoy it. He can tout his own accomplishments, but he cannot claim them as his own or reveal the struggle behind them. His capitulation on Iraq may have secured his footing in the administration, but to keep that footing he must not overstep. He holds his dissent close to the vest, careful to appear loyal before the public while working his channels of dissent in private. His position in the cabinet, then, is more tenuous and less tenable than ever. In order to keep his power, he cannot seem to have it. This became apparent from the moment I hit my seat. With a great sigh, Powell launched into a meandering soliloquy, and for the next hour he scarcely paused, speaking endlessly and yet saying very little, drowning out questions, pausing only to inflect his tone upward for a moment, allowing me short opportunities to grunt or nod or say little more than "Yeah" or "Uh-huh" before he would steamroll onward, eyes twinkling.
He started with a long, wandering meditation on chicken exports to Russia and slid from there into a glowing assessment of America's role in the world, saying, "We're trusted not to want anybody's land, not to want to exercise dominion over any other peoples," and then without pause dived into a story about "this little stupid island that I had to deal with about a year and a half ago, off the coast of Morocco, which is as big as two soccer fields. Nobody lives on it. And for some reason, the Moroccans went aboard and claimed dominion over the island—not even an island, it's a rock. It's 200 yards off the Moroccan coast. It belongs to Spain."
"Why would they want it?" I asked.
Powell winked. "Because it belonged to Spain, and it's 200 yards off the Moroccan coast. And they've been arguing about it for a couple hundred years. Next thing we knew, it was an international crisis. The European Union immediately said, 'Spain is right,' and the Organization of Islamic Conference—the fifty or so Muslim nations in the world—said, 'No, Morocco's right.' So there you have it. Well, what are you going to do? Take it to the U.N.? No. What are we going to do?" He paused for effect. "Call the U.S. secretary of state on a Thursday night.
"And so the brand-new Spanish foreign minister, who is now one of my best girlfriends, Ana, calls me. She calls me and says, 'I have a problem,' and she explains this rock. And she gets finished and I say, 'Why are you calling me?'
"And she says, 'You need to fix my problem.'
" 'Ma'am, what's this got to do with me?'
"Well, over the next forty-eight hours, I did nothing but work this rock problem. I must have made, oh, I think we counted it one day, thirty-eight or forty phone calls to her, the prime minister of Spain, and the king of Morocco. And the only way both sides would agree to the outcome is if I would write a letter to both of them telling them what they agreed to do to each other and if I would sign the letter. Not each of them—I would sign the letter. If I would cosign this deal!
"So I wrote the letter at home," he continued. "I shipped it out to the two of them. They both started arguing about the letter. It was a major problem in that the name of the island on the part of the Moroccans was one name, and the Spanish called it something else. And this wasn't going to work. So what to do, what to do? I say, 'Can't I just call it "the island"?'
" 'No, it's got to be more than that.'
"So I went to the State Department cartographer, and I got the exact coordinates of the island, and we put into the letter 'the island located at da-da-da.' Okay, that'll do it. And then, when the deal was about done, the Spanish agreed to it thirty minutes before darkness. Couldn't find the king of Morocco. He'd gone off in his car to go to another city. I tried to reach him, and they said he doesn't take calls in his car. I said, 'Well, you need to find him in ten minutes, because I'm going to go play with my grandchildren, and the Spanish won't leave the island. So he needs to pull over somewhere.' And he did. They caught him. He pulled over, called me from somebody's house. The king got on the phone. I said, 'We got the deal, but you've got to approve the letter.'
"He said, 'But the letter isn't here. It's back in Rabat.'
"I said, 'I've got to have you approve the letter now, Your Majesty.'
"And he said, 'But I only saw an early draft. What does it say now?'
"I finally said, 'Your Majesty, the letter does what I told you it would do. Trust me.'
"And he said, 'Mr. Secretary, I trust you.' And he got in his car and went off where he was going. I signed two copies of the letter, faxed one to Spain and one to Rabat. The Spanish left, and they've been buddies ever since."
He paused for a second. "Now, that's a silly story," he said, "but it illustrates so much. They come to the United States. It takes diplomacy. It got almost no attention in the press. Why would it? I mean, it's not terribly exciting. But that's what diplomacy is about."
Soon Powell was offering advice on how to attack the flank in battle, providing a glimpse of the exclusive club made up of the world's foreign ministers, and all the while brushing aside my questions, such as when I asked about whether he wanted to quit the administration and he snapped, "I never speculate on that," careening into a five-minute dissertation on China. When it was finally over, he stood up to say good-bye, flashed me a sly smile, and said, "You didn't get as much substance as you might have wanted."
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The portrait of a great man putzing around with trivia, tidying up messes on "stupid little islands," was one that Condoleezza Rice also tried to impress upon me, though not for the same reasons. With Powell, it seemed clear, the idea was to avoid controversy, to keep our interview on comfortable ground, controlling the dialogue as much as possible and leaving little room for questions about awkward issues.
With Rice, the idea was different. Rather than steering the conversation away from my questions, she set out to rewrite the questions themselves, couching her answers in phrases like the right way to think about it or the right paradigm or the right point. On the subject of Colin Powell, the right point was apparently that the general had been absorbed into the cabinet, a loyal functionary saddled with a long list of arcane minutiae that kept him out of the way.
"You have no idea how many issues end up on the desk of the secretary of state of the United States," she said.
"Little things?" I asked.
"Yeah," she said. "There is no issue that people honestly believe is not an American problem, and I would say 90 percent of those end up on Colin's desk. And so he will find himself resolving small issues, border issues between small countries that most of us can barely find on a map."
The only time Rice became truly animated was when I asked about Powell's appearance at the U.N. last year. At first she insisted that Powell had not been sent to the U.N. per se, since the secretary of state was the only person who could have made such a presentation (despite an exhaustive history to the contrary, including appeals to the U.N. by presidents, vice presidents, and U.N. ambassadors like Adlai Stevenson, who famously brought evidence of the Cuban missile buildup to the attention of the U.N. in 1962). When pressed, Rice acknowledged that it might have been possible for U.N. ambassador John Negroponte to have made the speech, but insisted, "There's really nobody else that can do it." When I pressed a little further, asking, "So there was never a discussion?" she spat out, "No. Everybody said it would have to be Colin," adding a moment later, "We wanted to have enough of a profile. It was an important presentation. Extremely important presentation. So we wanted to have enough profile."
Rice even described Powell as enthusiastic about the presentation, spending four days and nights at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, just before the speech, munching on delivery pizza and scouring the evidence against Saddam for ways to punch it up. In her words, "He wanted to be sure that we put in the best, strongest aerials we had, both from the point of view of the ones that were best documented but also the ones that were going to be punchiest."
By contrast, members of Powell's staff, including his two closest advisers, Richard Armitage and Larry Wilkerson, described Powell's four-day immersion at the CIA in very different terms—not punching up the evidence but breaking it down, frantically sifting through droves of poor intelligence and false claims that the Pentagon, the intelligence services, and the vice president's office had slipped into his presentation, throwing out hype in an effort to preserve his reputation and avoid the kind of humiliation that he wound up with anyway.
"Four days!" Armitage practically shouted when I mentioned Powell's visit to the CIA. "Four days! And three nights! The secretary is a man of honor! He values being credible. To be credible, you have to be able to stand behind what you say. That's why he fieldstripped it. Just like, you ever heard of fieldstripping cigarettes back in Nam?" He was referring to the process of tearing up smoked cigarettes so they will decompose quickly and leave no trace for the enemy. "That means tear it up and shake the tobacco that's left to the wind," Armitage said. "He fieldstripped it."
"On the last day and night [at the CIA], the secretary called me, and he said, 'I need a little extra reinforcement.' So I went out there and spent Sunday and Sunday night with him. He needed someone. He was the voice throwing everything out, and he wanted another loud voice at the table."
Powell's chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson, described those four days at the CIA as a battle, with Powell's team scrambling in the final hours to save the general from humiliation. "I was down at the agency as his task-force leader," Wilkerson said. "And we fought tooth and nail with other members of the administration to scrub it and get the crap out."
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It is worth noting that I found Larry Wilkerson in his well-appointed wood-paneled office in the State Department not through any great journalistic dexterity of my own but through the good graces of Powell's staff, and in particular one of his media advisers, who had been indispensable in helping me contact Powell's close friends and advisers, telling me whom to call and precisely when they'd be available. For Wilkerson in particular, she had been persistent, telling me on no less than four separate occasions that the relationship between Powell and his chief of staff was like "mind meld," and that after fifteen years of working together, they were of a single brain.
I arrived at Wilkerson's office on a sunny winter morning, hoping he could shed light on Powell's undercover influence and the assortment of successes he has managed lately, against the odds, beneath his veneer of irrelevance. I hoped, for example, that Wilkerson would be able to illuminate Powell's efforts in Libya, where he began a diplomatic process, long before the war in Iraq, to open dialogue with Qaddafi, something that Armitage told me "required us to beat down the protestations of those in the administration who did not want any discussions with Libya." (Asked about the same thing, Rice had said, "Um, I don't remember it really that way.")
I was also interested in Powell's friendship with the president of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf. During normal conversations, the two men refer to one another as "Mr. Secretary" and "Mr. President," but in more serious moments one will sometimes say, "General, we need to do this general-to-general," and the other will say, "Okay, General, what is it?" and they will use the designation "General" until the issue is resolved, at which point they will resume calling each other "Mr. Secretary" and "Mr. President." Preposterous as that may sound, it is difficult to deny that the closeness between Powell and Musharraf has helped balance the scales between Pakistan and India and has helped avert war in Kashmir for the past two years, not to mention giving American troops access to Pakistani bases for the war in Afghanistan.
What I didn't expect from Wilkerson was the rest of the picture, a glimpse of the venom with which Powell and his staff have come to regard their adversaries in the Pentagon. But almost as soon as I asked about the relationship between Powell and the neocons, Wilkerson crouched forward in his chair and said, "I make no bones about it. I have some reservations about people who have never been in the face of battle, so to speak, who are making cavalier decisions about sending men and women out to die. A person who comes immediately to mind in that regard is Richard Perle, who, thank God, tendered his resignation and no longer will be even a semiofficial person in this administration. Richard Perle's cavalier remarks about doing this or doing that with regard to military force always, always troubled me. Because it just showed me that he didn't have the appreciation, for example, that Colin Powell has for what it means."
"I call them utopians," he said. "I don't care whether utopians are Vladimir Lenin on a sealed train to Moscow or Paul Wolfowitz. Utopians, I don't like. You're never going to bring utopia, and you're going to hurt a lot of people in the process of trying to do it."
"It's politically incorrect for me to say so," he added, "but when all you use is a stick, you're not going to get very far." He used the example of Pakistan. "The problem is, you sanction Pakistan, you lay all this stuff on Pakistan, the Pressler Amendment, and so forth, and then all of a sudden Pakistan does a nuclear test in '98. But if you stay involved with them and you keep working on them and you keep at it, over and over and over again, keep seeing what's successful and what's a failure and emphasizing what's successful, doing more of it, and quit doing what's a failure, then you can make more progress than if you just sanction somebody and walk off and say, 'That's it, I'm not dealing with you anymore.' "
"It hasn't worked in Cuba for forty years," I said.
"Dumbest policy on the face of the earth," he said. "It's crazy."
The more I spoke with Wilkerson, the more I understood why Powell's staff had gone to such lengths to set up my interview with him, reminding me that anything Wilkerson said was the same as hearing it from Powell. But if Wilkerson was going to be Powell's voice, if he was going to say the things that Powell wouldn't or couldn't, there was one question I still needed him to answer. Before I left, I wanted a sense of Powell's plans for the future. I was wary of how to phrase the question, though. It seemed safe to assume that Wilkerson had not been dispatched to announce the end of Powell's career in this article, at this particular moment, and if I asked him outright whether or not Powell was planning to quit, I could put him on the spot. He might wind up saying, as Powell did, "I never speculate on that" or "He hasn't announced a decision." So I phrased the question differently.
"Being inside the building," I said, "is there as much expectation that this will be the end of Powell's tenure as there is outside the building?"
Eight long seconds of silence.
"Um," Wilkerson said, "I've known him for fifteen years...."
"My considered opinion is that he is..." His voice trailed off. "He's tired. Mentally and physically. And if the president were to ask him to stay on—if the president is reelected and the president were to ask him to stay on, he might for a transitional period, but I don't think he'd want to do another four years."
Wilkerson fell silent again.
"He seems tired," he said.
WIL S. HYLTON IS A GQ WRITER-AT-LARGE.
"Casualty of War," will be available in the June 2004 issue of GQ, on newsstands in New York and Los Angeles May 18, and nationwide May 25.