Is Colin Powell Burned Out?

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CBS News Reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News, who now covers the State Department.

It's been one of those weeks. As in one of those weeks officials in the Bush administration would like to forget. Most of the angst comes from the photographs showing American soldiers mistreating and humiliating Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad. The photos were disgusting enough to force President Bush to publicly apologize after meeting with a visiting Arab leader, Jordan's King Abdullah. "I told him I was sorry for the humiliation suffered by Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families," Mr. Bush said at a White House press conference.

First aired on CBS News' 60 Minutes II, the photographs have almost completely dominated news coverage since they were first broadcast and have caused perhaps the most severe case of political heartburn the Bush administration has yet had to endure. Most Americans are equally offended by the visual evidence showing the abusive treatment of the Iraqi prisoners, but the political responsibility for this emotionally-charged debacle has gone right to the Oval office proving, as former President Harry S Truman liked to say, "The buck stops here."

Understanding the devastating impact these photographs are having in Iraq and in the Arab and Muslim world, almost every senior administration official has been out, front and center, giving one interview after another, offering apologies and explanations and talking about all the positive things American soldiers are doing in Iraq and about moving forward to June 30, the anticipated date for the transfer of sovereignty to a transitional Iraqi government.

Admitting the obvious, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told CNN "…we're in a bit of a hole… I can't grade it or put a dipstick against the size of the hole. We're in one. We're starting to climb out."

While the Pentagon and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld are understandably bearing the brunt of the blame for what's taken place at Abu Ghraib, Secretary of State Colin Powell has had his own problems this week.

For once, Powell's discomfort has not been caused by some foreign minister out to score points by taking a jab at a Bush administration policy position. Frankly, it would be easier to deal with if that were the case. No, this time it was members of Powell's own inner circle doing the damage.

In an article appearing in GQ magazine, writer Wil S. Hylton quotes Powell's chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson, speaking of America's top diplomat: "He's tired. Mentally and physically." The article, which predictably went into Powell's inner sanctum battles with Vice President Cheney, Rumsfeld and other senior administration officials, puts a little tarnish on Powell's reputation as a diplomat and skilled Washington insider.

Powell, who granted Hylton an on the record interview for the profile, does a lot of media but most of his appearances are done under controlled circumstances with the number of questions and time with reporters limited.

The Secretary of State, for instance, does very few news conferences where reporters have a chance to follow up the secretary's answers on various topics of the day.

The news in the GQ article was not that Powell had made himself available, but that his staff, apparently, was encouraged to talk openly with the author. When the story started to raise discomforting questions the State department spokesman, Ambassador Richard Boucher, told reporters that Hylton had violated journalistic ground rules with some of the interviews, including Wilkerson's, which, Boucher said, was not supposed to have been on the record.

However, there it was, for all to read, one of the Secretary of State's top aides and one who has known him for 15 years at that, admitting what has been rumored for months that no, he didn't think we'd be seeing Colin Powell serve another four years as the nation's top diplomat, assuming Mr. Bush won re-election. And the more illuminating and candid opinion of Powell as mentally and physically tired.

Then there were Wilkerson's remarks on America's policy of isolating Fidel Castro's Cuba. "Dumbest policy on the face of the earth, it's crazy," Wilkerson is quoted in GQ as saying. Not an especially prudent comment, especially in a week when the Bush administration was announcing new and more restrictive actions against Castro's regime.

Powell's own comments on having to referee a diplomatic dispute between Spain and Morocco over an island Spain claims but which lies close to the Moroccan coast were more entertaining but seem to have caused only a ripple. He called it "this little stupid island I had to deal with."

Boucher did the best he could, advising reporters not to listen to others talk about Powell, but to watch Powell for themselves, see how active he is and, presumably, draw a conclusion for themselves which would be the opposite of Wilkerson's.

Speaking for himself, Powell told reporters: "I'm well. I am pursuing a very vigorous schedule…. It's too bad we have to spend time on these kinds of issues. Let's get on to the substance, and I don't want to ask---answer any more questions about these kinds of things." As he walked away from reporters, the more casual side of Powell tried to reinforce his point. "Guys, you follow me around all day. You see me. You know what I'm doing. I'm doing my job."

Then, to put an exclamation point on the dustup over the GQ article, Powell said: "And I don't have time to fool with this anymore."

If only Rumsfeld could dispense with his problem of the week so easily.