June 1990 seems so long ago. It was June at West Point and the graduation ceremonies were impressive. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Colin Powell, gave the commencement address:
General Powell, President Bush’s chief military adviser, called on the new officers to maintain pride, quality and strength in “an Army that will be smaller” because of a reduced threat of war with the Soviet Union.
“Let the old General Powell worry about the defense budgets, peace dividends and geopolitical trends,” the 53-year-old commencement speaker said. “You go and do what West Point second lieutenants have been doing. Lead your soldiers. Keep them fit and hardy, trained and ready. Keep them proud.”
Then those new second lieutenants threw their caps in the air and that was that. The family flew back here to California. Francis Fukuyama’s big idea – The End of History – was all the rage back then. The Berlin Wall had fallen. The Soviet Union was as gone. Jeffersonian democracy and free-market capitalism had won – everyone had finally seen that this was the only political and economic system that worked in this sorry world.
Everyone wanted to believe that, so everyone believed that. Powell did. He told that graduating class of new second lieutenants that their job would be to keep the ongoing certain peace – not heroic but honorable nonetheless.
Two months later, Saddam Hussein made his move. He suddenly decided Kuwait was really part of Iraq and seized it, and then the first President Bush rallied the major powers of the West to go in and stop that nonsense. Our graduate soon found himself in the desert, commanding a deadly group of deadly Abrams tanks, in actual combat, as mismatched as that turned out to be. Colin Powell didn’t foresee any of that. No one did.
Powell got to work on that problem. But it’s been war ever since. The kid we saw graduate has now retired, a full-bird Colonel who had seen that Powell had been wrong. But that didn’t change anything. Colin Powell was still a good man, and now he’s dead. Bradley Graham wrote the Washington Post obituary:
Colin L. Powell, who helped guide the U.S. military to victory in the 1991 Persian Gulf War as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then struggled a decade later over the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a beleaguered secretary of state under President George W. Bush, died Oct. 18 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. He was 84.
The cause was complications from covid-19, said his assistant, Peggy Cifrino. She said Gen. Powell, who was fully vaccinated, had Parkinson’s disease and multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer that impairs the body’s ability to fight infection.
Half of the talking-heads on Fox News were screaming that this proves that these vaccines don’t work all and everyone should refuse any vaccination now, and the other half of those people on Fox News looked a bit embarrassed. Every doctor interviewed anywhere said this proved no such thing. There’s only so much that these vaccines can do for someone with not much of an immune system left in the first place. But then there’s Tucker Carlson. Not that this mattered. Everyone else was thinking about the man:
Born in New York to Jamaican immigrants, Gen. Powell rose rapidly through the Army to become the youngest and first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs. His climb was helped by a string of jobs as military assistant to high-level government officials and a stint as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan. Charming, eloquent and skilled at managing, he had a knack for exuding authority while also putting others at ease.
As the Pentagon’s top officer, he played a prominent role in restoring a sense of pride to the nation’s post-Vietnam military and began the reshaping of American forces after the end of the Cold War. His famous prescription for the use of force, dubbed by journalists the Powell Doctrine, called for applying military might only with overwhelming and decisive troop strength, a clear objective, and popular support.
He was a natural, and he was thoughtful and careful – not mad for war but understanding that war might be necessary, sometimes, but then, if so, done well, not haphazardly. Cool. But then things went sour:
His selection by Bush in late 2000 to be secretary of state transformed Gen. Powell from soldier to statesman and made him the first Black person to lead the State Department. But his four years as secretary proved his most difficult assignment.
A pragmatist and a strong believer in international alliances, Gen. Powell often found himself the odd man out in an administration dominated by neoconservative ideologues who were dubious about the usefulness of the United Nations and NATO and all too ready to employ U.S. military power.
Other than his well-known reservations about military intervention, Gen. Powell, as he often acknowledged, was not given to grand principles. He saw himself primarily as a problem-solver and expert manager.
He was no match for Cheney and Rumsfeld:
Gen. Powell harbored deep misgivings about the timing of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the size of the invading U.S. force. But he ultimately supported the action, lending his considerable credibility to making the public case for war. It was a move he later regretted.
While hailed on his retirement from public service at the end of Bush’s first term as a figure of honor and distinction, Gen. Powell was also criticized for not pushing harder to block the Iraq War or quitting in protest.
In his defense, Gen. Powell cited a sense of duty and obedience to presidential authority. “It’s just like in the military – you argue, you debate something, but once the president has made a decision, that becomes a decision for the Cabinet,” he said on CNN’s “Larry King Live” in July 2009.
But the president wasn’t the problem:
Bush had brought Gen. Powell into the Cabinet to lend immediate credibility and gravitas. But Gen. Powell’s power and influence were frequently undercut by more hardline colleagues, notably Vice President Richard B. Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who viewed him at times as too solicitous of foreign interests and insufficiently supportive of Bush’s vision for the muscular exercise of American power.
That wasn’t his vision:
“Serving as a brake on rash presidential actions and misguided policies was not the forward-looking role Powell had envisioned for himself as the nation’s chief diplomat,” Washington Post journalist Karen DeYoung wrote in “Soldier,” her 2006 biography of Gen. Powell.
In the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when the idea of attacking Iraq first arose, Gen. Powell helped persuade Bush to stay focused on striking al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.
Throughout 2002, Gen. Powell continued trying to slow the march to war with Iraq, warning Bush in a meeting in August that an invasion could destabilize the Middle East and shackle the United States with a great reconstruction burden.
“You break it, you own it,” he recalled saying.
But Gen. Powell eventually threw his substantial public credibility behind the decision to attack Iraq, agreeing to Bush’s request to present the U.S. case for war to the U.N. Security Council in February 2003.
That was a bad idea:
His 75-minute speech, asserting that Iraq possessed chemical, biological and perhaps even nuclear weapons, proved deeply embarrassing when no weapons were found after the invasion. He told an interviewer several years later that the speech would remain a “blot” on his career, which was “painful” for him to accept.
Gen. Powell’s bureaucratic battles within the administration persisted, and Bush, after winning reelection in 2004, asked for the secretary’s resignation. “I left with some disappointment,” he said on Larry King’s talk show, acknowledging that he had been “somewhat off-frequency with” other Bush advisers.
But he had been right:
The U.S.-led war and occupation dragged on for nearly a decade amid a grinding insurgency, caused thousands of American deaths and more than 100,000 Iraqi deaths, and left the United States mired in a failed state with hostile neighbors.
The costly war – in terms of lives and money – helped fuel a backlash against establishment Republican leaders that would contribute eventually to Donald Trump’s outsider win in the 2016 presidential election. Gen. Powell, who walked a thin line between blunt opinion and diplomatic reserve, was careful in 2008 not to publicly criticize Bush while announcing his support for Bush’s Democratic successor, Barack Obama, the first Black president of the United States.
Powell saw what was happening:
During Trump’s tumultuous term in office, Gen. Powell became increasingly outspoken in his criticism of the president, who threatened and encouraged the use of force against racial-justice activists in 2020. He scorched Trump’s ethics and accused other Republicans of accommodating or acquiescing to the president’s divisiveness out of political self-interest.
“The one word I have to use with respect to what he’s been doing for the last several years is the word I would never have used before, never would have used with any of the four presidents I worked for: He lies,” Gen. Powell said on CNN’s “State of the Union” show. “He lies about things, and he gets away with it because people will not hold him accountable.”
Trump wasn’t happy, and Powell shrugged:
When Gen. Powell announced his support for Democratic nominee Joe Biden over Trump in the 2020 election, Trump used the Iraq invasion as a cudgel, calling him on Twitter “a real stiff who was very responsible for getting us into the disastrous Middle East Wars.”
And when Trump fomented a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, after months of falsely claiming that Democrats had stolen the election, Gen. Powell announced that he no longer considered the Republican Party his political home. “Right now I’m just watching my country,” he said, “and not concerned with parties.”
Republicans, he told CNN, “would not stand up and tell the truth or stand up and criticize him or criticize others. And that’s what we need. We need people who will speak the truth, who remember that they are here for our fellow citizens. They are here for our country. They are not here simply to be reelected again.”
That’s how the Washington Post obituary opens. The rest is Powell’s life story. But the central tragedy in all this is what happened with the neocons. James Mann, the author of Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet, explains that this way:
Perhaps the American public will always associate Colin L. Powell with the Iraq War, but he is one of the most important figures in recent American life. He was also one of the most likable of Washington officials; his very popularity was what made his opponents both resent him and keep him close. It was, in a sense, the source of his undoing.
And he was popular:
Powell’s rise to prominence reflected the mood and needs of the post-Vietnam era. A veteran of that war, Powell became a bridge across the civilian-military divide that had emerged, someone who could translate what the Army wanted to its civilian superiors and vice versa. He helped the military overcome the racial tensions that burst forth in Vietnam. He always impressed his civilian superiors.
It was Powell’s future adversary Richard B. Cheney who, as defense secretary in 1989, pushed for Powell to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. To compound the irony, it was Cheney who, during the invasion of Panama in 1989 and the first Gulf War in 1991, turned over the podium at Pentagon daily briefings to Powell – giving Powell the chance to display both his forcefulness and his wit. When Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega went into hiding, a reporter asked if Noriega would be found. “He’s used to a different kind of lifestyle,” Powell replied, “and I’m not quite sure he would be up to being chased around the countryside by Army Rangers, Special Forces and light infantry units.”
But the Gulf War sparked the resentment between Powell, on the one hand, and Cheney and his hawkish Pentagon aides on the other. Powell had at first been against the idea of going to war to reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Declassified transcripts show that at one early National Security Council meeting Powell asked, “Should we put out a strong redline on Saudi Arabia as a vital interest?” The suggestion was that Kuwait wasn’t the place to draw that line.
They wanted their war and the wanted their war right now. Powell asked them to rethink that. They froze him out from then on. He wasn’t one of them:
Powell flirted with running for president in 1996 but decided against it. What’s forgotten is that whatever Powell’s general popularity, he was unpopular with parts of the base, particularly those Republicans with views on race and immigration that would eventually fuel the rise of Donald Trump.
When Powell was given time to speak at the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego, he delivered a stirring televised plea for diversity, inclusion and tolerance. “You all know that I believe in a woman’s right to choose, and I strongly believe in affirmative action,” Powell told the delegates. “The Hispanic immigrant who becomes a citizen yesterday must be as precious to us as a Mayflower descendant.” There was some applause from the floor, but there were also some loud boos.
Four years later, when George W. Bush ran for president, he allied himself with Powell to help amplify his “compassionate conservative” message and went on to name Powell as his secretary of state. Yet Powell never became close to the younger Bush. The old disagreements with the hard-liners reemerged, almost from day one. At the news conference Bush held to announce Powell’s nomination, the retired general spoke at length on both diplomatic and defense issues, raising fears that his views might come to hold sway at the Pentagon as well as the State Department.
Diplomacy? War as a last resort? No way:
Bush soon nominated Donald H. Rumsfeld, Cheney’s mentor and ally, to be defense secretary – and Rumsfeld became the powerful figure who, together with Cheney, hemmed in Powell throughout the administration.
Slate’s Fred Kaplan sees this:
Rarely, if ever, has an American statesman or warrior risen to such heights of power, then been cut off at the knees by his bureaucratic rivals.
Born in Harlem to Jamaican parents, a classic tale of a working-class kid pulling himself up by his own bootstraps, Powell joined the Army, fought in Vietnam as a grunt, rose through the ranks to corps commander, then, after a stint as President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, was named by President George H. W. Bush to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
As a rare officer who combined battlefield experience with political savvy, Powell turned the chairmanship into a powerhouse, utilizing his large staff – several hundred of the military’s smartest officers, split into several specialized units – in a way that, as one official at the time told me, “ran circles around the rest of the national-security bureaucracy.” It was in that position that Powell emerged as a public figure, devising much of the strategy for the first Gulf War, which pushed Iraq’s invading army out of Kuwait, and explaining the strategy at several televised press conferences.
He was on top of the world:
During that time, he also enunciated what came to be called the “Powell doctrine,” a view that the U.S. should go to war only if the political objectives are vital and defined, if military force can achieve those objectives at an acceptable cost, if all nonviolent means have failed – and then, if war is necessary, that we should go to war only with overwhelming force. The doctrine amounted to a critique of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam – both its flawed rationale and its piecemeal tactics – and has influenced the debate on the proper role of military force ever since.
That was his legacy. And then he got played:
After Democrats regained the White House in 1992, Powell wrote a bestselling memoir, My American Journey, and considered running for president. (His wife, Alma, urged him not to run, fearing that some racist would assassinate him.) When the Republicans won again in 2000, President George W. Bush named Powell secretary of state, to unanimous acclaim, in what seemed the pinnacle of his rise – but it proved to be the start of his downfall. Taking office with an air of confidence, assuming that he could rule the realm of foreign policy through his clout and popularity, he soon found himself – to his initial surprise – outmaneuvered, on one major issue after another, by the tag-team of Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who had been friends and colleagues dating back to the Nixon administration.
They were Nixon guys. Powell wasn’t a Nixon guy:
Powell accomplished a great deal on issues that Cheney and Rumsfeld didn’t care about. In the fall of 2001, they let him conduct the shuttle diplomacy that may well have prevented war between the nuclear-armed nations of India and Pakistan. Powell also helped soothe tensions with China after its shoot-down of a U.S. spy plane. However, he lost almost every other battle. In one of his first statements, Powell declared that he would resume President Bill Clinton’s nuclear negotiations with North Korea – only to be told by Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser, that he would do no such thing. He had to eat his words.
And it got worse:
Whenever Powell tried to initiate any form of arms control, his undersecretary of state, John Bolton, who had been installed in the job as a spy for Cheney, did his best to sabotage the move. On the few occasions when Powell won a debate in the National Security Council, Cheney would go talk with Bush privately – and usually get the decision reversed.
By the middle of Bush’s first term, his counterparts in Europe – who had celebrated Powell’s appointment and spoke with him frequently – came to realize that his views, which they found agreeable, did not reflect the president’s views, and he lost his influence abroad. When Bush wanted to send a message on the Middle East, he sent Rice. When he dispatched an emissary to Western Europe to lobby for Iraqi debt cancellation, he sent James Baker, the Bush family’s longtime friend who had been his father’s secretary of state.
And then there was that UN debacle:
Unable to muster support for the invasion, either on the homefront or among allies, Cheney came up with the diabolical idea of having Powell – the one senior Bush official with international credibility – make the case for war before the U.N. Security Council. Initially, Powell resisted, tearing up the script the White House gave him to read. But then, in an effort to be helpful and loyal, he went to CIA headquarters and buried himself in documents and briefings for days on end, tossing out claims that had no support and leaving in those that seemed at least plausible. In the end, he gave his fateful speech, with passion. Many critics of the invasion were won over, in good part because it was Colin Powell making the case.
But all the claims that Powell was believed – all the evidence he recited to support the idea that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction – turned out to be false as well. In his excellent book, To Start a War, Robert Draper wrote that plenty of CIA analysts could have told Powell that the claims were false, or at least dubious – but that CIA Director George Tenet, eager to please Bush with the conclusions Bush wanted to hear, deliberately kept Powell from talking with them.
Powell got played:
Powell later openly regretted his role in the U.N. speech and denounced those who’d manipulated him at Langley. Too late. If he had resigned in protest before the invasion, he might have stopped the war from happening; if he had spoken out after leaving office, he might have affected its future course. But this wasn’t his way. He was, at heart, a team player, a “good soldier.”
That meant that he could be manipulated, and Spencer Ackerman adds this:
George W. Bush needed Colin Powell. If the Supreme Court had made Bush president, in a far less direct sense Powell had, as well – by declining to run against Bill Clinton in 1996, a race Powell might well have won.
After Bush v. Gore, Bush enlisted Powell as his secretary of state so Powell’s gravitas could compensate for his lack of it. Powell – both the first black person to be JCS chairman and the first to be national security adviser – was a statesman by any definition. He wanted to craft American strategy badly enough to overlook the fact that he would never be allowed to do so as long as his longtime adversary Cheney and Cheney’s mentor Donald Rumsfeld were in the administration. As soon as 9/11 happened, Powell’s old adversaries coalesced into a faction to invade Iraq. Powell was on the outside. Everyone in Washington knew it. Everyone in foreign capitals would soon learn it. But everyone also waited to see what Powell would do in response.
It’s hard to overstate this point. Ideological media had committed to the Iraq War, and they were already pre-positioned to disdain Powell as an obstacle to their general geopolitical psychosis.
This was a set-up:
Perhaps the most illustrative example comes from then-Senator Joe Biden. In summer 2002, Biden, long a critic of the neocons, saw the looming Iraq invasion through the prism of factional conflict within the administration. He sought to strengthen Powell. But Powell made the fateful decision to present U.N. weapons inspections of Saddam Hussein as an alternative to invading Iraq, rather than the precursor to it. Powell contended to Bush that seeking U.N. inspections cost them nothing; would minimize the objections of foreign capitals in the event of war; and could even provide a pretext for invasion should Saddam prove recalcitrant. That meant Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the Democrats’ leading foreign-policy voices, lined up behind Powell’s weapons inspections.
Bush perfectly exploited the opportunity Powell gave him. That fall, when he sought a vote from Congress on the invasion, a central argument was that a vote for war could be a vote for not-war, by strengthening Powell’s hand at the U.N. for inspections-based disarmament.
But that was nonsense:
All this, you will notice, is before Powell’s February 2003 speech to the United Nations. Too much has been made of that speech, by Powell’s allies as well as his critics. By February 2003, with most of the invasion force mustering in the Gulf, the die had already been cast. Powell’s actions in the summer and fall of 2002 are ultimately more important than his waving a vial of talcum powder or whatever it was.
But that doesn’t mean the Powell speech was unimportant. First, Powell and his allies knew the speech was bullshit, and labored to remove from it only the most obvious bullshit, the bullshit that would immediately discredit Powell, and then treated this reputation management as an act of valor. Second, Powell undertook the speech at the suggestion of Dick Cheney, who mocked Powell’s vanity by saying he could afford to lie for the team: “You’ve got high poll ratings; you can afford to lose a few points.” Third, the speech did exactly what Bush and Cheney wanted, which was to mute their critics.
Yes, Powell got played:
After Bush’s reelection, a former ambassador recalled Powell’s reaction after learning he would not be staying on for a second term. “They had lied to him. All the crap about the so-called biological vans. Cheney and the neocons pushing on the CIA,” the ex-ambassador told author Robert Draper. “He was furious that he’d been made a patsy.”
Colin Powell made himself a patsy. He knew that what was about to unfold was wrong, disastrously confused complicity with resistance, and facilitated the end of an estimated 300,000 human beings. Powell, at the apex of his influence, destroyed what had been his career’s central purpose: preventing a repetition of Vietnam.
Ackerman says there may be a lesson here:
I’ve heard respected retired officers of the generation just below Powell’s contend that leaders ought to ask themselves What Would Colin Powell Do. I can only hope that no Iraq War veteran who finds themself in Powell’s position ever does.
But there was that June afternoon long ago at West Point. That was a fine speech. But nothing is that simple.