Colin Powell, Hillary Clinton and Iraq

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, campaigning on behalf of Hillary Clinton, stopped by the Monitor today. He spoke approvingly of the 2002 Senate speech Clinton gave to explain her vote to authorize the use of military force against Iraq, reminding us that she had made explicit her hope that President Bush would use the Senate's support to avoid war. We asked Holbrooke why this wasn't naive.

Holbrooke replied: "Here's why I know she's telling the truth. This is a personal anecdote that no one else can tell you. After I left the U.N., I remained in very close touch with Kofi Annan, he's a very close friend. And at exactly the same time, but after the Senate vote, we were at Kofi's residence, my wife and I, and Powell had just been up there, and Powell was trying to get the 15 votes at the Security Council for Security Council Resolution [1441], which ultimately passed. And I said, 'What's going on?' And Kofi said, 'He's told us that if we get a unanimous vote, we can avoid war.'

"The French ambassador at the time was Jean-David Levitte, who is now (French President Nicolas Sarkozy's) national security adviser, and the British ambassador was Sir Jeremy Greenstock -- two of the best diplomats in the world. Both of them very close friends, both told me exactly the same thing: Powell had said to their face what Hillary had said earlier in her speech. Now, if you ask her this when she comes here, she will tell you she had private assurances from Rice and from Powell. I know she's not making it up, because three of the best diplomats in the world -- Kofi Annan, Greenstock and Levitte -- told me exactly the same thing, all of it from Powell.

"Now you've got two choices in this: Powell was fronting for Cheney-Rumsfeld and he was being used in ignorance, or he was misled. But Powell was, and everyone forgets this, seven years ago, five years ago, Powell was the biggest hero in the United States, and when Colin Powell, with all that aura of his, looks you in the eye and says, 'This vote can avoid war,' you don't say to him then, as you would now, 'Are you out of your mind?' "

We followed up: "So do you think he was being duplicitous, or do you think he was duped?"

Holbrooke answered: "This is one of the most extraordinary stories of public service of our time, the use of this guy. In retrospect, I think he deluded himself, because his ethos could not allow him to believe that the commander in chief and vice commander in chief of the country had sent him into battle knowing that he was carrying a poison pill. So I think he believed what he was saying at the time -- I'm basing this entirely on what he did in New York, based on the vote. People said that his energy and his intensity then was so high. Then you fast-forward another three months to February, when he made his, the worst day of his life. He goes out of his way to tell you how he spent a week scrubbing the material down and he got out all this yellowcake stuff and this and that. What you're talking about really is a psychodrama about a guy who deluded himself. So my guess is that he believed what he was doing, he didn't know he was lying -- it's too big a leap. But his silence on this issue tells you how deeply he must be bleeding inside."

- Sarah Liebowitz and Ari Richter