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Colin Powell resigns

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-11-16

THE resignation of Colin Powell as the United States Secretary of State on Monday should not surprise those who've known the gritty but amiable soldier to totally dedicated to national service. But he has been tired, and not fully recovered from a recent prostate operation.

What's surprising is that it took him this long to turn in his papers - that he didn't do so last year when his commander-in-chief, President George W. Bush, persuaded him to present before a sceptical UN Security Council false evidence about weapons of mass destruction in order to justify the American invasion of Iraq.

Mr Powell - son of parents of Jamaican origin - stayed on as Secretary of State out of loyalty to Mr Bush, and to the current president's father, former President George H. W. Bush, under whom General Powell served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was credited with swift execution of the 1991 Gulf War that liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. He and then President Bush wisely refrained from dispatching American forces all the way to Baghdad, anticipating that the overthrow of strongman Saddam Hussein wouldn't necessarily mean winning the hearts and minds of everyday Iraqis.

How prescient they were 13 years ago. The rapid unravelling of Iraq since the American invasion in March 2003 has amply illustrated the original Bush-Powell premise that if US forces "conquered" Baghdad, they would be seen as invaders, not liberators. The bloodshed and mayhem continue in Iraq and aren't likely to subside any time soon.

Privately, Mr Powell has remained furious at his main adversary within the Bush Administration, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. It was Mr Rumsfeld, along with the so-called neocons - hawks such as Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and Vice President Dick Cheney - that urged Mr Bush to invade Iraq. Their idea was to transport and transplant the American idea of democracy and transparent governance in a region where those are alien concepts.

The neocons' ambitions do not end with Iraq. They have in their sights Syria, Iran and Lebanon, all known to be states harbouring terrorists of various persuasions - but mainly those associated with Al Qaeda and Hamas, the Islamic groups that have vowed to inflict continuing damage on American, and Western, civilisation. Now that Mr Bush has been re-elected handily, the neocons constitute the most vocal and vigorous voices in the administration. That of Mr Powell, a strong but soft-spoken man who believes that the best threats are never made, is clearly being smothered.

By resigning, the Secretary of State has shrewdly dissociated himself from further adventures planned by Mr Bush's coterie who, like the Bourbons of France, learn nothing and forget nothing. They aren't interested in fashioning diplomatic alliances with other democracies such as those in Europe. They are sufficiently persuaded that American power is hegemonic - that, in a unipolar world, the US can get its way, any way, and each time.

That might well be the case when it comes to deciding which hapless Third World country to invade next. But that's not the same as bringing genuine democracy and instruments of good public governance to occupied countries. For that, the US would need a sustained commitment to building - or rebuilding - institutions of governance such as an independent judiciary and a flourishing legislature, not to mention a corruption-free executive branch. Mr Powell has privately told friends that what M Rumsfeld has installed in Iraq makes a mockery of the very idea of democracy.

His tensions with Mr Rumsfeld recall those that one of his predecessors had with a fellow cabinet official. That predecessor was, in fact, a figure that Mr Powell admires, the first US Secretary of State - and later the country's third president - Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson had been he US emissary to France when President George Washington recalled him to become Secretary of State. Almost from the day he returned home in 1789, Jefferson expressed his alarm at the regal forms and ceremonies that marked the executive office; but, as one historian has written, his fears were tempered somewhat by his confidence in the character of Washington.

Jefferson, however, distrusted Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. He resigned as Secretary of State in 1793, almost exactly 215 years to the day that his distant successor Mr Powell tendered his resignation. Jefferson's reasons for leaving office? He thought Hamilton's financial programs both unwise and unconstitutional, flowing "from principles adverse to liberty."

That could be Mr Powell talking about Mr Rumsfeld's Iraq adventure, which has already cost US taxpayers more than US$200 billion, with another US$100 billion expected to be spent on implanting democracy in 2005. If Mr Bush decodes to go after Iran - whose nuclear ambitions he has decried - or Syria, the US will be footing huge defence bills and incurring massive deficits well after both Mr Powell and Mr Rumsfeld are gone from the political scene.

Their tiffs became unseemly, and in a one-industry town like Washington, the Powell-Rumsfeld feud spawned legends, however embellished some of them might have been.

While Mr Rumsfeld may well retire, too, he would head back into the private sector, where he made his fortune. Mr Powell could have another challenging assignment ahead of him. The word in Washington is that Mr Bush may nominate him to succeed Mr James D. Wolfensohn as the next president of the World Bank.

That would be a wise and dramatic choice. The bank, which lends more than US$20 billion annually to poor nations so that they can undertake sustainable economic development, is in a bad shape. Its management is disorganized, with a leader who's known more for his temper tantrums than sage counsel. As a former investment banker, Mr Wolfensohn has never seemed comfortable in the hovels and huts of the Third World. Somehow, custom-made safari suits don't quite go across well in paddy fields.

General Powell is used to paddy fields. He was a war hero in Vietnam. He's been in the trenches of the Third World, especially focusing on African countries' efforts to alleviate poverty.

He has often quoted a fellow soldier, General George Marshall who, in a celebrated speech at Harvard University on 5 June 1947, articulated the basic principles that led to the creation of the Marshall Plan. Under that plan, the US gave US$13 billion between 1948 and 1951 to rebuild the war-ravaged countries of Western Europe. The prosperity of today's European Union is as much a testimony to Marshall's foresight as it is to the ideas of Jean Monnet, frequently called the "father" of the European Community.

The Marshall Plan gave less to the defeated countries of Europe over a four-year period than what the World Bank gives annually now to the 135 nations of the Third World. Given General Powell's humanitarian instincts, his wide-ranging knowledge of global affairs, and his deep intelligence and skills at managing people, wouldn't he be an appropriate choice for the World Bank?

Unless, of course, Mr Donald Rumsfeld wants that job.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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