In September 1990, as the first President Bush was making up his mind to dispatch a large force to the Persian Gulf to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait, the powerful chairman of the Joint Chiefs was given a chance to make a case to his commander in chief that options short of all-out war had yet to be exhausted. The gist of Colin Powell’s argument was that a decision on war could wait, that economic sanctions, combined with a steady buildup of American forces in Saudi Arabia, might be enough to force Saddam Hussein to back down. That encounter in the Oval Office was set up and witnessed by Dick Cheney, the ever-taciturn defense secretary.
Just shy of twelve years later, sensing that another Bush administration was heading for war with the same old enemy, Powell stayed on after a meeting at the White House in August 2002 to make a hauntingly similar case to the second Bush in what proved to be the longest conversation they’d had, or ever would have, on an issue of foreign policy. This time, of course, Powell was in civvies, a secretary of state who’d flirted with the idea of making a run for the presidency himself a couple of election cycles earlier, when George W. Bush was a neophyte governor. Cheney, now his nemesis, was absent from this session but, as always, lurking in the White House wings, having turned the vice-presidency into something approaching a prime ministership. The Vice President was sure to scoff at the notion that the diplomatic case against Saddam as an actual or potential ally of terrorists, ready to slip them weapons of mass destruction if he hadn’t already done so, had to be carried to the United Nations before any decision to go to war could be called necessary. Cheney, who’d helped place his friend Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon as a counterweight to his former underling, would see this reprise, the general had to know, as a sign of softness.
And yet Powell won that round. Bush overruled Cheney, a rare but not unprecedented event, whether because of Powell’s own persuasiveness or because the case for diplomacy was reinforced by the British prime minister, Tony Blair, who felt he couldn’t sign on to the American campaign to make the Arab world safe for democracy minus the cover of a UN resolution. Powell’s tactical victory, which came on a matter of procedure rather than the larger strategic question of whether Iraq had anything to do with the so-called “war on terror,” was to prove to be his undoing as a member of the administration and, to some degree, as a public figure, for Bush only seemed to be listening when Powell said, as he later recalled, that Iraq was “like a crystal glass…it’s going to shatter. There will be no government. There will be civil disorder.”
To an extent the secretary hadn’t yet grasped, a course …