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Why did it take so long for Powell to speak out?

By Lawrence Wilkerson

Since former Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared on "Meet the Press" on June 10, I have had numerous inquiries as to why. My answer has been that Powell understands the truth of Richard Nixon’s words: "Whoever is president of the United States, and what he does, is going to determine the kind of world we have."

Since 2001, George Bush and Richard Cheney have determined a world that an increasing number of Americans — not to mention hosts of other people on the planet — find extremely disturbing and dangerous.

Start with the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. As Powell said, it has tarnished America’s reputation so badly that dictators in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere now hurl Guantanamo back in our faces when we criticize their violations of human rights. Worse, friends and allies secretly applaud when they do.

Move to the rule of law. From maintaining a sycophantic attorney general who’s lost the support of his entire department, to suspending the writ of habeas corpus, to authorizing secret wiretaps, to crafting post-legislation signing statements that clearly indicate that this president and vice president have no respect for domestic or international law, this administration operates under its own interpretation of what is legal and what is not. This disregard of the law by the nation that heretofore was judged to be the paragon of law frightens peaceful people everywhere.

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Continue to Iraq and Afghanistan. Fundamentally, the president and vice president have decided that the challenges our nation confronts on these two battlefields will be passed on substantially unchanged to the next administration. In the meantime, they will "stay the course" — principally on the backs of an Army and Marine Corps that are just short of broken.

Plow ahead to energy and planetary warming. Here, the feckless policies of this White House defy description. Taking six years simply to acknowledge the challenges, the president and vice president waste no opportunity to stand in the way of any substantive move to confront them. From much tougher gas mileage requirements for autos to hard caps on carbon emissions, they are obstinately opposed. Eleven states have declared Washington irrelevant and are moving out to execute their own plans.

Powell has been criticized since his appearance on "Meet the Press" for not speaking out earlier and for not resigning when he had the chance. To the latter charge, let me simply say that no American citizen would have wanted to witness the carnage of the first Bush administration without Colin Powell. Without him as secretary of state, America’s reputation — and its power — would not simply be tarnished, they would be dramatically diminished.

I know as well some of the reason for his reluctance to speak out earlier. When he and I left the State Department in January 2005, there were four years left for this president and vice president to serve.

That is a long time in which to make the world an even more dangerous place than it already is. Had Powell spoken out vigorously, it would have made matters even more difficult for the even-handed and realistic people who remained in the administration and were trying to act rationally.

Moreover, short of impeachment or real oversight by another separate and equal branch of government, the Congress, there was and is no substantive method of checking this White House. Thus, for even a person of Powell’s stature to speak out would have served little purpose except to titillate the talking heads and excite the punditocracy inside the Washington Beltway.

All of which begs the question: Why now?

Frankly, I don’t know. But a good guess would be that Powell understands that the nation’s long and grueling political campaign season is already upon us. We Americans need to think long and hard about our political process, about what we want in our next president and vice president. As Powell said, we need to think about voting for the best person for the job — regardless.

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I for one hope that Powell will speak again and again as we go forward toward November 2008. He is a man worth listening to as we try to decide who will next determine the kind of world we live in.

Lawrence Wilkerson is the Harriman Visiting Professor of Government at the College of William and Mary. He was Colin Powell’s chief of staff at the State Department from 2002 to 2005.

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