WASHINGTON - How appropriate it is that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in his final days as America's chief diplomat, has been the front man for President Bush's delayed response to the South Asia tsunami tragedy.
In touring the disaster area with the president's kid brother tagging along for maximum public relations, Mr. Powell provided cover for the widely noticed presidential sleepwalking through the catastrophe's first days, and the initial niggardly U.S. government reaction to it.
Mr. Powell, as in the president's mismanagement of the war in Iraq, has again put his prestige on the line like the good soldier he is. He seems unaware that his once-glowing reputation as his own man is evaporating in his unquestioning willingness to do the emperor's bidding.
Thanks to television, the American people and the world heard and witnessed Mr. Powell's insistence, when Mr. Bush first offered $15 million and then $35 million in disaster relief, that giving aid was not a competition, and that the proper course was calmly to assess the need before providing more. The secretary of state dutifully responded to accusations from a U.N. official by saying that "the United States is not stingy."
Barely a couple of days passed, however, when the president, clearly stung by the avalanche of criticism engulfing him for his silence on the tragedy as he enjoyed Christmas at his Texas ranch, suddenly upped the relief figure tenfold, to $350 million. That left Mr. Powell to try to explain what had happened to the calm and deliberate assessment he had insisted was required only days before.
Then, as the secretary's tenure was approaching its final two weeks, he found himself dispatched to the devastated region with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in tow, presumably to provide his expertise in dealing with hurricanes, not to mention his family relationship to the man in the White House.
This assignment was only the most recent one in which Mr. Powell was asked, or directed, by the president to lend his high public standing to a cause. But at least this was one in which the secretary did not have to feign his commitment.
In the most significant investment of his prestige during his four years at the State Department, Mr. Powell had played the good soldier by going against his own best strategy for dealing with Iraq. Long before the lead-up to Mr. Bush's invasion, the secretary had enunciated what came to be known as the Powell Doctrine: Use force only as a last resort, then use it massively and with a clear exit strategy in place.
In an attempt to adhere to it, he first persuaded Mr. Bush to take to the United Nations his case against Saddam Hussein's noncompliance with U.N. resolutions on disarmament. After obtaining a use-of-force authorization, he got the president to go back a second time, laying out a detailed, impassioned "proof" that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, later to be shown to be no proof at all.
When the United Nations balked at providing a second, more explicit approval for invading Iraq, Mr. Powell loyally hung on, despite his serious doubts about the wisdom and efficacy of the plan that later came to light. Meanwhile, even as he lost debates within the Bush administration over the strategy and conduct of the war, Mr. Powell continued to pledge allegiance to the administration with which he had signed on for a tour of civilian duty.
Now that his retirement from that tour is imminent, the man once considered to be a serious prospect himself for the presidency says that as an old military man he will never run for public office, but hopes to continue providing public service in some capacity.
But the one public service he could have best performed during his four years at State would have been to stand up for his own doctrine. He could have resigned in its defense rather than marching down the road that has led his country into a manmade disaster in Iraq. And that tragedy may eventually be seen as just as destructive as the natural disaster that has finally triggered massive U.S. relief, with Mr. Powell as its overseer on the scene.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.