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SecState Powell's Biography by Karen DeYoung - Reviewed in NYTimes

SecState Powell's Biography by Karen DeYoung - Reviewed in NYTimes

October 10, 2006
Books of The Times

 Tracing Colin Powell’s Journey, Both in and Out of Step With Those
 Around Him



         The Life of Colin Powell

By Karen DeYoung

Illlustrated. 610 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.95.

As the war in Iraq drags on, and more and more is learned about the
missteps and misrepresentations made in the walkup to the war, it
becomes clear that former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell
— who harbored serious doubts about the wisdom of invasion and who
frequently found himself an outsider in an administration dominated by
neo-conservative hawks — was prescient about a host of issues, from the
difficulties of rebuilding a postwar Iraq to the need for higher troop
levels and multilateral support.

Even as his foresight is underscored, journalists and former colleagues
have continued to ask: Why didn’t Mr. Powell resign when he realized
that much of his advice was being ignored? Why didn’t he more forcefully
express his reservations about the war to President Bush? Why did he put
up with being cut out of major foreign policy decisions by Vice
President Dick Cheney
and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld
Why was he unable to make the president and the Pentagon heed the tenets
of the “Powell Doctrine” (which held that military commitments must be
made with decisive force, a clear objective and popular support, to
avoid another Vietnam)?

As Karen DeYoung, an associate editor of The Washington Post, notes in
her new biography, various theories have been advanced to explain Mr.
Powell’s decision to quietly stick out his first-term tenure as
secretary of state. She writes that some of his closest overseas
counterparts speculated “that his military background made him unwilling
to question orders or that any black man who reached the top in America
must have done so by toeing the line.”

She observes that some Foreign Service officers believed that he stayed
put because he was “the only thing standing between a sustainable
foreign policy and utter national disaster,” and that in the words of
one assistant secretary, he prevented “much worse stuff from happening.”

And, finally, she suggests that Mr. Powell let the administration use
his prestige and popularity “even as it repeatedly undermined him and
disregarded his advice,” at least in part because he “simply refused to
acknowledge the extent of the losses he had suffered”: “Beyond his
soldier’s sense of duty, he saw even the threat of resignation as an
acknowledgment of defeat. He was a proud man, and he would never have
let them see him sweat.”

Much of “Soldier” retraces familiar ground. The first half of the book —
which focuses on Mr. Powell’s early life, his distinguished Army career
and his role in the first gulf war under the first President Bush —
draws heavily on the general’s own memoirs, published in 1995. The
second half, devoted to his tenure as the second President Bush’s
secretary of state, reiterates a lot of information in earlier books by
reporters like Bob Woodward
Seymour M. Hersh and Ron Suskind, while echoing observations made more
vociferously by Mr. Powell’s former chief of staff Lawrence B.
Wilkerson, who in the last year has become an increasingly outspoken
critic of the administration.

Mr. Powell gave Ms. DeYoung six lengthy, on-the-record interviews (five
in 2003-4, when he was secretary of state, and one in 2005 after leaving
office), and this book’s chief usefulness is in fleshing out the
narrative of the administration’s road to war from the general’s
perspective — much the way Mr. Suskind’s book “The Price of Loyalty”
fleshed out a portrait of the administration from the point of view of
Paul O’Neill, the former treasury secretary. Sometimes Ms. DeYoung is
content to play the role of Mr. Powell’s sock puppet, channeling his
views of the Bush administration. Sometimes she steps back to offer her
own assessments of the general’s decisions.

As depicted in “Soldier,” Colin Powell
comes across as an able public servant blessed with enormous experience,
common sense and political skills, but also hampered as secretary of
state by an underestimation of his hawkish colleagues’ determination to
go to war and an overconfidence in his own ability to influence
President Bush. Both before and after 9/11, he was the odd man out: a
careful tactician in an administration driven by visionary zeal; a
moderate and multilateralist in an administration inclined toward
unilateral and pre-emptive action.

Caution seems to be a hallmark of both his personality and his style:
Ms. DeYoung tells us that as a junior officer, Mr. Powell had his grade
on an exam nicked for not coming up with a bolder response to a
hypothetical war-fighting question, and later carried with him a
three-by-five card that read, “Avoid Conservatism.” Caution would inform
his reluctance to rush to war against Iraq, but it also appears to have
informed his dealings with President Bush and administration hawks.

“Powell thought that Bush had a bad habit of driving headlong down blind
alleys or going along for the ride when policy was being driven by
Cheney, often with Rumsfeld in the jump seat,” Ms. DeYoung writes. “But
at least the president was usually willing to apply the brakes before
crashing into a wall, and he seemed to understand that his secretary of
state was there to steer him back toward a reasonable course.”

At least that is how Mr. Powell saw it, she suggests, “in a series of
first-year crises — the initial hard lines on China and on troop
withdrawal from Bosnia, the refusal to talk to North Korea and the move
toward peremptory withdrawal from the ABM treaty.”

Yet at the same time, she observes, “Powell was slow to grasp the extent
of his — and the State Department’s — isolation within Bush’s national
security team,” adding that, in the wake of 9/11, with hawks pushing the
case for war, he remained “certain there was still plenty of time to get
Iraq right.”

The portrait of the Bush White House that emerges from this volume
ratifies those drawn in many other recent books: it is an administration
in which traditional policy-making channels are subverted, expert advice
is frequently ignored, and substantive debate and discussion are avoided.

Like many earlier books by reporters and former administration insiders,
this volume suggests that the National Security Council
— which is supposed to mediate differences among the State Department,
the Pentagon and other administration officials — was highly
dysfunctional: as national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice
at times seemed “willfully blind to the damage being done by these
intramural disputes.” More dangerously, in Mr. Powell’s view, “she
tended to echo back to the president what she thought he wanted to hear
rather than what he needed to know.”

During the winter of 2002-3, Ms. DeYoung notes, the National Security
Council “met regularly to review the status of both military planning
and the diplomatic effort,” but “the principals had never discussed the
pros and cons of the war itself.” There was never a moment, Mr. Powell
said, when they all made their recommendations, and Mr. Bush made a

As Mr. Powell saw it, writes Ms. DeYoung, the “main impediment to a more
orderly, disciplined process in the Bush administration” was Vice
President Cheney, who had his own shadow National Security Council staff
and who spent a good part of every day in Mr. Bush’s presence: “The
president tended to pay most attention to the last person to whisper in
his ear, Powell thought, and that person was usually Cheney.”

The growing antipathy between Mr. Powell and the State Department on one
side, and Mr. Cheney, Mr. Rumsfeld and their senior staffs on the other,
Ms. DeYoung says, extended far beyond specific policy disagreements: “It
was institutional, ideological and even personal.” She adds: “Powell was
put off by Cheney’s dour certitude,” while “Cheney thought that anyone
as smooth and popular as Powell was inherently untrustworthy.”

As recounted by Ms. DeYoung, one of the great paradoxes — and tragedies
— of Mr. Powell’s story is that his experiences in Vietnam, combined
with his experiences in the Reagan administration where he witnessed the
fallout of Iran-Contra, left him with the deeply held belief that
“presidential policy decisions made without a full and honest airing of
options and potential pitfalls among a range of senior advisers usually
resulted in disaster.”

In his role as secretary of state in the administration of George W.
Mr. Powell was unable to impress upon the president and the rest of his
war cabinet the wisdom of this lesson, as they hurried America to war
against Iraq and as he, the good soldier, reluctantly went along.

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