Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The restoration begins

Not of Iraq, of course. Of Colin Powell.

Walter Isaacson has a piece in today's NY Times comparing Powell's decisions and actions as Secretary of State to those of Powell's role model, George Marshall. The essence of his argument is that in any administration, principled men and women who advise the President should not walk out in a huff everytime the President disregards their advice (which is correct), and that Powell compares favorably to Marshall in this respect (which is not correct).

The parallel he draws to make his argument is between Marshall's refusal to resign when Truman decided to recognize Israel and Powell's when the Boy King went into Iraq. Setting aside for another day Isaacson's rather casual dismissal of Marshall as having been "wrong" in his opposition to Truman's decision, the parallel is not without validity. The debate within the Truman administration about Israel was a messy dust-up, and the motives of the various advisors involved ranged from principled idealism and pragmatism on one end of the spectrum to base political pandering and anti-Semitism on the other. Marshall disagreed with Truman's decision, but apparently had no intention of resigning over it, and he stayed on message thereafter.

The problem with the parallel is that Marshall never had a moment like Powell's infamous address to the UN Security Council, wherein he basically insulted the world's intelligence and flushed his credibility down the commode by presenting a sloppily doctored argument that Iraq posed a clear and present danger to civilization. For the sake of the discussion, let's give Powell the benefit of the doubt here and assume that he wasn't in on the fix at that point (although granting your Secretary of State ignorance about the evidence doesn't exactly inspire confidence). As it became increasingly obvious that he had been played by intellectually dishonest ideologues in the White House and Pentagon, Powell stayed silent before finally offering up half-baked, "mistakes were made" rationologies for his address.

Marshall understood that he served at the pleasure of the President, and that his role, as Isaacson notes, was "to give his best advice and then offer support." But I've never seen anything written about Marshall to suggest that he thought being played for a sucker was in his job description, and I doubt he would have felt any obligation to remain in such a position.

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