The tragedy of Colin Powell is that his training as a soldier betrayed him in civilian office. As honorable a man as ever to serve a president, the outgoing secretary of state was undone by the serviceman's doctrine: Follow orders.
The open secret about Powell is that the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff thought the United States was needlessly rushing to war with Iraq. He tried to act as counter-agent to the administration hawks, including Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
That sensible moderation was the source of Powell's credibility with many world leaders, as well as with many Americans. So when he stood before the United Nations and laid out the case for war, the evidence carried his imprimatur. If Powell said it was so, then it must be true. President Bush, who had already decided to go to war with Iraq, traded on Powell's reputation for integrity, and the loyal soldier went along.
The convolutions and consequences are worthy of Shakespearean tragedy, but this is no story. The United States is stuck in a war that Powell justified to the world based on now-discredited evidence. More than 1,200 Americans have died thus far. Whatever else he has achieved or will achieve, that fact will dominate his life. It will be at the top of his obituary.
No one should believe Powell had any real chance of changing the history that has occurred on his watch. Bush, urged on by his desk-bound warriors, had already made the decision on Iraq. But more questions might have been asked had Powell resigned over this fundamental issue.
That's what a predecessor, Cyrus Vance, did after former President Jimmy Carter sent the military on a failed hostage-rescue mission the secretary opposed. He understood that there is a place where duty to your president and devotion to your principles part ways. The soldier in Powell didn't seem to be able to separate them.
Bush has nominated Rice to succeed Powell, which will inevitably take the State Department in a more hawkish direction. That is not necessarily a wholly bad thing, if she and the administration have learned anything from the mistakes of the past two years. Before they confirm her, the Senate should satisfy itself on that matter.
Overshadowed by Powell's resignation were those of three other cabinet members, Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman and Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham. All leave a mixed record.
Paige couldn't seem to get out of his own way, for example, at one point calling the National Education Association a "terrorist organization." And while Abraham understood the security of nuclear materials to be a pressing international issue, he presided over a national energy policy that was crafted in secret and that disdained any effort at conservation. Like Powell, though, he signed on with an administration that wouldn't have had it any other way.
Bush is moving expeditiously to fill the vacancies that are turning his cabinet into a sieve. He promptly announced that Rice would succeed Powell and last week, that his White House council, Alberto Gonzales, would take over from John Ashcroft at the Justice Department. More may be coming, if Rumsfeld takes his leave or, perhaps more likely, if Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge or Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson step down.
The administration is going to look far different in 2005, and so far, none of the newcomers has the stature of a Colin Powell. But if the events of the past couple of years show anything, it is that stature isn't everything.