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Colin Powell was honored by a memorial service at Washington’s National Cathedral last Friday, November 5. This on top of the many tributes already accorded him for his character and role as a Black pioneer—the first African American to serve as National Security Advisor, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State. Still, the obituaries have had to note a cloud on the horizon; as the AP headline put it, Powell was a “trailblazing general stained by Iraq.”
Indeed, Powell’s dog and pony show before the United Nations on February 5, 2003, was one of the most decisive and tragic turns on the George W. Bush administration’s drive to invade Iraq. Decisive because Powell’s credibility—double that of Bush at the time and salient across the entire political spectrum—sealed public opinion behind the cause of war. Tragic because Powell opposed the whole venture and because every other push to promote it partook, by turns, of lethal innocence, cynicism, ignorance, arrogance, and incompetent warmongering. Powell embodied the opposite of those qualities, but he made the whole thing happen. He was a good soldier.
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It wasn’t the first time. As it happened, a few days before Powell’s death I led a book discussion of Max Hasting’s commanding Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 (HarperCollins 2018). Much to my surprise I read (pp. 519-20) that no less than Colin Powell, then an Army major and divisional staff officer, wrote an “uncompromising whitewash” of American conduct in the infamous My Lai massacre. The military’s relations with the natives were “excellent,” he reported. When Lieutenant William Calley took the fall for 200+ officers above him on the food chain for the war crime and its subsequent cover-up, an outpouring of civilian and military sympathy helped set him free after 42 months of house arrest—2.5 days per victim. Actually, a fairly harsh sentence as these things go. I don’t know if Hastings included Powell among the 200, but the incident didn’t stop his climb to the pinnacle of power.
The My Lai report foreshadowed Powell’s part in a much grosser slaughter to come. The American invasion of Iraq precipitated the death of 8,250 US troops and contractors, perhaps six times that many Iraqi forces, and some 35,000 enemy fighters. The real casualties, of course, were civilians—somewhere between 185,000 and 210,000 of them—with another 9.2 million Iraqis being displaced at home or abroad. (This from a 2003 population of 25.6 million.) The ranks of the wounded, either in body or spirit, are untold. Financially, direct costs of the war totaled nearly $2 trillion ten years out in 2013, with much more to come in terms of veterans care and interest charges on a war fought entirely on borrowed money. And all of it on behalf of one of, if not the worst foreign policy decision in US history.
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Robert Draper’s To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq (Penguin 2020) gives a full, precisely detailed, and amply cited account of how this folly came to be. The names and details, the outright lies and innuendos, the misapprehensions and missed clues as to the real truth pile up here page by page, in clarifying, enraging, disheartening, and numbing detail.
The story can be rendered as a script summary for a caper-film become horror movie. Take a tour down memory lane:
- The con: invade Iraq.
- The shiny toy fabrications: yellow cake, aluminum tubes, mobile weapons labs, mysterious tankers.
- The ghosts: Mohamed Atta, Ibn al-Shaykh Al-Libi, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Curveball.
- The nightmares: secret meetings in Prague, harbors for terrorists, chemical weapons, biological weapons, potential nuclear weapons, a mushroom cloud over every American city.
- The master-minds: Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney.
- The perps: Douglas Feith, Scooter Libby, John Hannah, William Luti.
- The publicists: numerous. Notable on the liberal side: Judith Miller, Christopher Hitchens, John Hoagland, the New York Times, the Washington Post.
- Con-men on site: Ahmad Chalabi the devious; L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer the clueless.
- The cowards: Hillary Clinton, Dick Gephardt, and every other Democrat angling for presidential nomination in 2004.
- The truth-tellers: many, including Hans Blix, Carl Levin, Brent Scowcroft, Jacques Chirac.
- The pawns: George Tenet, Condoleezza Rice.
- The patsy: Colin Powell.
- The poodle: Tony Blair.
- The mark: George W. Bush.
- The enduring icon: Abu Ghraib.
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Draper’s book begins by introducing the principals chapter by chapter, then weaves them together as they concoct and sell a case for war. The line of “Master-Minds” starts, in ascending order of importance, with Vice President Dick Cheney, at once cynical, paranoid, and apocalyptic. Seeing America as surrounded by deadly enemies, he was willing to use any method, cook any book, invoke any specter (see “Nightmares” above) to lash out against them.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld comes next, the perfect profile of arrogance. Determined to create a new model army and finding Iraq a useful place to deploy it, Rumsfeld disdained postwar planning, yet monopolized those powers, leading to the invasion’s catastrophic aftermath. This was part of the bureaucratic mastery by which he outmaneuvered Powell as a dangerous rival while treating NSA director Condoleezza Rice with utter contempt.
At the top of the heap stands Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld’s assistant, the lethal innocent. Fixated for years upon Saddam Hussein as the country’s mortal enemy and confident that 10,000 Iraqi troops mobilized in the south of the country could sweep him away, Wolfowitz just one week after 9/11 planted those seeds in the swamp of ignorant piety that was the brain of George W. Bush. The rest, as they say, is history, and Draper lays it out in maddening detail.
Bush was thrilled to get a cause worthy of his Manichaean passions and, protesting a yearning for peace all the way, rode his mantra relentlessly toward war. Freedom, he “reasoned,” is the universal yearning of all humanity. America, by God’s design, is the epitome of freedom. Therefore America should, can, must bring freedom to any nation that needs it, particularly those that might resist and most particularly the one that had outlasted his father and possessed lots of oil. Doing this by armed invasion would be no problem.
You don’t know whether to laugh or cry over this big baby when, observing the looting and mayhem that took over Iraq’s streets after the invasion, Bush turns to his aides and asks plaintively: “Why aren’t they cheering?”
In this play, Powell took the role of a servant, not a manipulator. So did CIA Director George Tenet. Tenet had his own bureaucratic priorities, aiming to restore the Agency from the neglect into which the Clinton administration had cast it. His strategy was to give “the First Customer” just the information or hypothetical possibilities that he, Bush, wanted. Here and not with the Trump administration, Draper declares, was the dawn of the post-intelligence era, when fantasy and speculation could drive and anchor policy.
Again, Powell opposed all this. Hence the tragedy—for the man, for the nation, for the world. Well down the road toward war, Bush asked his Secretary of State directly: did he, Powell, agree with his president? Was there a case for war? Would he make it on the world stage, at the UN? At this point, Draper argues, Powell could have told the truth: there was neither a just nor a prudential case for war, so, no, he did not agree, would not promote, would instead resign.
That action would probably have stopped the war momentum in its tracks at home. It certainly would have triggered a like resignation by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, turning Parliament against Tony Blair’s push for war, and thus forfeiting the alliance with which Bush was frosting his cake. In other words, this was the last chance, and Powell threw it away.
In later life Colin Powell owned up to his error and acknowledged, while bristling at, the enduring stain it put upon his reputation. Indeed, there are many qualities worth saluting in the man, and not just in comparison to fools like Bush and moral ciphers like Donald Trump. On matters of race and social mobility, he embodied some of the better possibilities of America, even if he also facilitated its love of war. Perhaps he can be best remembered for setting forth starkly the ambiguous nature of the good soldier: a necessity, perhaps, on the battlefield, but hardly ideal for a Secretary of State and not of all for a purported moral icon of the nation.