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John McCain says that he wasn’t surprised by Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama. Nobody should be. Powell has broken ranks in his own inimitable style. For years, he has tried to distance himself from the administration. But he would rarely bring himself to do it in public; instead, he perfected the techniques of a ferocious bureaucratic in-fighter. He was the master of identifying himself in print interviews as “senior administration official,” not to mention the political art of poignant silence.

He cultivated the media of image of a reluctant, yet loyal, secretary of state, forever being over-ruled by Dick Cheney and other hard liners. And in a way, he was following the doctrine that bears his name. He didn’t want to engage in open warfare with his enemies, until it was clear that he was positioned for a clear and decisive victory. And what could be more low risk than attaching yourself to a Democratic candidate cruising to victory?

For the last eight years, Powell was a maddening figure--to both the left and right. He has not given a full-throated endorsement to the Democratic critique of the Bush foreign policy he helped steer, despite his private criticism of that policy. Instead, he hedged and let proxies do his bidding for him. His main vehicle for expressing his discontent has been his old chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, who often sounds like he just stepped out of a MoveOn meeting. Wilkerson has said, for example, that Cheney may be guilty of war crimes. He has also repeated a narrative about a secretive cabal that repeatedly over-ruled the State Department and CIA. It was striking that Powell never confirmed or denied Wilkerson’s accounting. But the nosiness of his old comrade’s critique certainly raised questions about Powell’s frame of mind.

Stealth tactics also guided his seeming opposition to John Bolton’s nomination to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Every living Republican secretary of state endorsed Bolton, except for Powell. Yet, Powell never came out and said what he thought. Instead, his underlings from State filled the notebooks of journalists and Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffers with tales of Bolton’s ill temper.

When questions began to arise about whether the pre-Iraq war intelligence--that Powell had presented with George Tenet to the U.N. Security Council--Powell quietly made it known to journalists that had he known the intelligence he was presenting was false, he would not have supported the war.

Powell, in other words, likes to profess his loyalty to his boss, even as he undermines him. The same held for Bill Clinton. In his memoir, he spat all over Clinton, even as he was still commander in chief. And while serving as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Clinton, he worked to sabotage the president’s campaign pledge to allow homosexuals serve in the military. Christopher Hitchens in 2000-- writing for the Toronto Globe & Mail --called his actions “the clearest insubordination.”

So now, Powell has finally had the guts to break with the Republican Party in a dramatic gesture. His name dominates the front pages; pundits applaud his bravery. McCain’s old strategist Mike Murphy has said that Powell delivered a “sledgehammer” to the Republican nominee. But would Powell have thrown his support to Obama if the race were tighter? That, of course, isn’t his style. And if Powell’s record as a diplomat isn’t the best, there’s one fight that Powell always wins: the battle to control his image.

Eli Lake was the national security correspondent of the recently defunct New York Sun.

By Eli Lake