Colin Powell, who was the country’s top diplomat, its highest general and the first black man to be, died Monday at the age of 84. Rarely, if ever, has an American statesman or warrior reached such heights of power and then cut to the knees by his bureaucratic rivals.
Born in Harlem to Jamaican parents, a classic tale of a working class child pulling himself by his own boots, Powell joined the military, fought in Vietnam as a grunt, rose through the ranks to the commander of corps, then, after a stint as President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Advisor was appointed by President George HW Bush as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
As a rare officer who combined battlefield experience with political acumen, Powell turned the presidency into a powerhouse, using his large staff – several hundred of the military’s smartest officers, divided into several specialized units – in a way that, as an official at the time told me, “circled around the rest of the national security bureaucracy.” It was in this position that Powell became a public figure, shaping much of the strategy for the First Gulf War, which pushed the invading Iraqi army out of Kuwait, and explaining the strategy at several conferences. television press.
During this time, he also spelled out what was called the “Doctrine Powell“, an opinion that the United States should only go to war if the political objectives are vital and defined, if military force can achieve those objectives at an acceptable cost, if all non-violent means have failed – and then, if war is necessary, that we should only wage war with overwhelming force. debate on the appropriate role of military force.
After the Democrats returned to the White House in 1992, Powell wrote a bestselling memoir, My American background, and considered running for president. (His wife, Alma, urged him not to run, fearing that a racist would murder him). his fall. Taking office with an air of confidence, assuming he could rule the arena of foreign policy through his influence and popularity, he quickly found himself – to his first surprise – foiled, on a major post-conflict issue. other, by the vice president’s tag team. Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who had been friends and colleagues since the Nixon administration.
Powell accomplished a lot on issues that Cheney and Rumsfeld didn’t care about. In the fall of 2001, they let him lead the diplomatic shuttle that might well have prevented war between the nuclear nations of India and Pakistan. Powell also helped ease tensions with China following the downing of a US spy plane. However, he lost almost all other battles. In one of his first statements, Powell said 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 must have eaten his words.
Whenever Powell attempted to initiate some form of arms control, his Under Secretary of State, John Bolton, who had been installed in the post as Cheney’s spy, did his best to sabotage the movement. On the rare occasion that Powell won a debate in the National Security Council, Cheney would meet with Bush in private and usually have the decision overturned.
In the middle of Bush’s first term, his European counterparts – who had celebrated Powell’s appointment and spoken to him frequently – realized that his views, which they found agreeable, did not reflect those of the president, and he lost its influence abroad. When Bush wanted to send a message about the Middle East, he sent Rice. When he sent an envoy to Western Europe to lobby for Iraqi debt cancellation, he sent James Baker, the longtime friend of the Bush family who had been his father’s secretary of state.
The Iraq War could have served as a ramp for Powell to escape to redemption, but instead it escalated his descent to Nowheresville. As Bush drew closer to the invasion, Powell warned him of the pitfalls – most prophetically on what he called “Pottery Barn rule: you break it, you own it“-but to no avail. (Shortly before the start of the war, a European diplomat reminded him that Bush was sleeping like a baby. Powell replied: “I also sleep like a baby – every two hours I wake up screaming.”) Once again, however, he was foiled. Unable to muster support for the invasion, either on the home front or among his allies, Cheney had the evil idea of ââasking Powell – the only senior Bush official with international credibility – to advocate for the invasion. war before the UN 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 immersed himself in documents and briefings for days, dismissing claims without merit and leaving ones that seemed at least plausible. . In the end, he delivered his fateful speech, with passion. Much criticism of the invasion has been won, in large part because it was Colin Powell who pleaded.
But all the claims that Powell believed – all the evidence he recited to support the idea that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction – have also been proven wrong. In his excellent book, To start a warRobert Draper wrote that many CIA analysts could have told Powell the claims were false, or at least questionable, but that CIA Director George Tenet, eager to please Bush with the conclusions Bush wanted to hear , deliberately prevented Powell from speaking with them. .
Powell left the administration after Bush’s first term. Towards the end he was featured in several journalistic accounts, most notably that of Bob Woodward Attack plan, as a critic of the war who saw Cheney as having “the fever” of invasion; but, even a year after leaving office, Powell has remained silent on these matters in public. As recently as June 2005, six months after the start of Bush’s second term, Powell continued The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in one of his first TV spots since leaving office. Stewart asked questions that left him with wide openings to attack his former colleagues, who were still in power, or the war, which still raged. But he took none. Of course, there have been disagreements, Powell said, but it’s true in any administration. The president is the boss, and he’s a good guy. Well he and Laura were just at his place for dinner the week before.
Powell then openly regretted his role in the UN speech and denounced those who had manipulated him at Langley. Too late. If he had resigned in protest before the invasion, he could have prevented the war from happening; if he had spoken after leaving office, it could have affected his future course. But it was not his way. He was, at heart, a team player, a “good soldier”.
Over time, he turned away from the Republican Party. In the 2008 presidential election, he backed Barack Obama, calling him a âtransformationalâ candidate, much to the dismay of his old friend and Obama opponent, Senator John McCain. However, Obama rarely called him for advice on defense matters. Powell then only endorsed Democrats – Obama again in 2012, Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Joe Biden in 2020.
In recent years, endorsements aside, Powell has stayed away from national politics, although it was not clear whether it was by choice. He has devoted most of his time to personal and public causes, in particular to the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at his alma mater, City College of New York. He has written more bestselling books and has spoken a lot, sometimes for a fee, sometimes not. He had a wonderful life. At a pivotal moment in our history, he could have been more decisive.