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It's time for us to quit on Powell

A WHILE BACK, a friend of mine took a new job that had all sorts of opportunities and risks. So along with her goals, she wrote a list of 10 things she would never do to keep the job. When she'd done five of them, she quit.

I've been thinking of her as the next chapter in the Colin Powell biography unfolds. In his new book, Bob Woodward writes, to no one's surprise, that Powell was reluctant to go to war. He writes, to much more surprise, that the secretary of state was out of the loop when the actual decision was made.

I don't know where or what "the loop" is, but now Powell is fighting back to prove that he was in it. "My support was willing and it was complete," he told the Associated Press, "no matter how others might try to impose their policy wishes on my body."

Did Powell ever make that list of 10 things he would never do as secretary of state? Maybe not. Maybe, like a good soldier, he just signed up for the tour of duty. As he told Sean Hannity, "I don't quit on long patrols."

But haven't those of us who long respected this general, this statesman, finally maxed out the list of things we thought he'd never do?

For many of us, Colin Powell was a reassuring -- the reassuring figure -- in the Bush administration. It wasn't his politics so much as his character. He was admired as trustworthy.

He was, from the get-go, a popular choice for secretary of state even, or especially, among those who were uncertain about the president. Maybe President Bush could be called a cowboy, but Powell was a sober general. Maybe Vice President Cheney had a "fever" for regime change, but Powell was a cooler head. Maybe others would designate Iraq as a "cake walk" but Powell knew that after you entered Baghdad, the "Pottery Barn rules" took over: You break it, it's yours.

If the administration had its eye on glory, Powell had his on dusty boots on the ground. If they saw the world in black and white, he saw the world in greater complexity.

I was glad that he was there. And I was wrong. If anything, Colin Powell provided a false reassurance to those who thought to ourselves, "Well, if he says so . . . maybe."

Entries one, two, three, four on my "not to do" list come under the date of Feb. 5, 2003, when Powell took his and our credibility to the UN Security Council and offered up a PowerPoint presentation that would make Microsoft proud. He made a compelling case of "Iraq Failing to Disarm." With quotes and highlights and photos, the slides even included a picture of the now-infamous aluminum tubes linked to the fanciful nuclear weapons programs. Disarmament for dummies.

Even if the attempt to get the UN on board was right, those power points -- weapons of mass destruction, links to Al Qaeda -- were largely wrong. If he was misled, so did he mislead. If "The Man," as Cheney calls the president, cannot admit mistakes, the secretary of state has been only marginally more open.

Washington insiders have called the Powell-Bush relationship a "soap opera." Can a moderate survive in a hawkish Cabinet? For how long? It is similar to questions asked in many workplaces: When does disagreement require a divorce? When do you get out? When do you speak out? Paul O'Neill and Richard Clarke faced the cold shoulder as well as warm book sales.

But I suspect that many dissenters in a company or an administration stay on not just out of loyalty but out of the hope they can still make a difference. And out of the belief that things would be worse without them.

In the Vietnam War, some of the more dovish bureaucrats were reluctant to leave their seats to the hawks. They measured their effect in the changes they could still make, in the voices that would still be heard. Sometimes the successes became so tiny it was hard to tell them from failure.

I don't know how Powell calculates his victories, whether he is loyal to the president or the troops, whether he believes in the policy or in his ability to change it. He may well feel it's his burden to put together the broken Iraq.

But any public illusion that he makes a difference has been shattered. That's the end to the soap opera. And if Powell won't quit on Bush, isn't it long past time to quit on Powell?

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is 

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