WASHINGTON — The Washington Post has opened a summer season of speculation about whether Secretary of State Colin Powell and Department Secretary Richard Armitage will leave their posts when President Bush ends this term on Jan. 20, 2004. The requisite denials have been issued on all sides, none of them convincing. Look at it this way: Under the military code by which Mr. Powell, a one-time ROTC officer lives, you obey the orders of the commander in chief for the term of your enlistment, and then you get to decide whether you want to sign up for another hitch. If anyone ever had reason to opt out, it would be Mr. Powell, who has lost one policy battle after another, mainly to hard- liners closer to the president's ear and heart.
For example, Powell was overruled on trying to patch up relations with France and Germany. He lost out on his early opposition to war with Iraq. He flew off to the Middle East to seek peace at a time when peace was not to be had. Time and time again, he was sent flying off to some remote part of the world when the president was reaching policy decisions with Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld.
Some of the intramural tensions were documented by Bob Woodward of The Washington Post. At a meeting of the war cabinet shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Rumsfeld raised the idea of an attack on Iraq. Powell argued that it should not be undertaken before assembling a coalition. Later, Powell said to Army Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "What the hell are these guys thinking about? Can't you get these guys back in the box?"
Mr. Bush was asked by Mr. Woodward in an interview last year what he thought about Powell's contribution. The president gave a tepid reply. He said, "Powell is a diplomat, and you've got to have a diplomat."
If this were not enough to tell the secretary the way the wind was blowing, a conservative attack on Powell's department was unleashed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute and in an article for Foreign Policy magazine. Without mentioning Powell by name, Mr. Gingrich accused the State Department of "a deliberate and systematic effort to undermine Bush's foreign policy."
Last February, soldier-statesman Colin Powell gave his all before the United Nations Security Council, trying to justify a war about which he had deep reservations himself. Powell continues to soldier around the world, serving, as they say, at the president's pleasure, which may no longer be his own.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.