United States

Colin Powell: Establishment warrior

Print edition : November 19, 2021

Colin Powell’s first big career break came in the 1980s when he was asked to join the national security establishment during the Ronald Reagan presidency. His tenure as National Security Adviser coincided with the end of the Cold War. Photo: Barry Thumma/AP

February 5, 2003: Colin Powell, the then U.S. Secretary of State, presenting his case at the U.N. Security Council for war against Iraq. During the course of his 76-minute-long speech, he held up a vial of what he said could be a biological weapon from Iraq. Photo: Ray Stubblebine/REUTERS

Colin Powell (1937-2021) has, among his many achievements, the distinction of being the first African American to occupy some of the highest military and political postions in the U.S., but his role in his country’s brutal imperial misadventures is often glossed over.

With the death of former United States Secretary of State Colin Powell on October 18 at the age of 84, only a few key individuals responsible for the brutal U.S.-led wars of the past three decades remain. Donald Rumsfeld, whose warmongering career started during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, passed away in June. Rumsfeld was Defence Secretary and Powell was Secretary of State when President George W. Bush ordered the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq without congressional approval. Powell, who had acquired the status of a “soldier statesman” by the time Bush appointed him to the post of Secretary of State, had always been an establishment man. It was therefore no surprise that he opted to go along with the “neoconservatives” in the Bush administration such as Vice President Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet, Paul Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld in arguing for mindless war and retribution after the events of 9/11.

Most of the hagiographic obituaries on Powell that appeared in the Western media preferred to gloss over his role in the U.S.’ imperial misadventures, starting from the war in Vietnam. Instead, the emphasis was on his achievement of being the first African American to occupy some of the highest military and political positions in the country during his illustrious career. Powell joined the U.S. Army in 1958, 10 years after the armed forces were completely desegregated, and served for more than 35 years. Powell, who had an undistinguished academic career, had entered the army through the Reserve Officer Training Corps. Born to Jamaican parents who had settled in New York, Powell experienced racism first hand while in uniform as a young officer assigned to a military base in the South. But as his career graph shows, Powell never really openly identified with the political struggles of his black brethren. Harry Belafonte, the American black singer and activist, described Powell as a “house slave”. In a television interview in 2002, the outspoken Belafonte said that there were two kinds of slaves during the era of black bondage: those who lived on the plantation and those who lived in the master’s house. “You got the privilege of living in the house if you served the master exactly the way the master intended to have you serve him. Colin Powell is committed to come into the house of the master,” Belafonte said.

As a young officer posted in Vietnam, Powell helped the army top brass to initially cover up the notorious 1969 massacre of civilians by U.S. troops in My Lai. The U.S. military assigned Powell to investigate the killing of more than 300 Vietnamese civilians shot in cold blood. In his report, Powell stated that such incidents happened in wartime and emphasised that “relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent”. There was no attribution of guilt in the report.

Also read: Unapologetic warmonger

Powell’s first big career break came in the 1980s when he was asked to join the national security establishment during the Reagan presidency. There was no looking back for Powell after that. In the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal and the subsequent resignations of top officials in the Reagan administration, Powell was tapped at a young age to be the National Security Adviser. His tenure as NSA coincided with the end of the Cold War. Powell was given credit for the warm ties that had developed between the Reagan White House and the post-perestroika Kremlin under Mikhail Gorbachev. Powell’s next prominent posting was as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. President George H.W. Bush, who succeeded Reagan, appointed Powell to the post.

Powell Doctrine

Powell then went on to play a key role in the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 and the first Gulf War in 1991. The decisive victories achieved in these two wars was attributed to what came to be called the “Powell Doctrine”. According to the strategy Powell formulated, the U.S. should consider war as an option only after all other means of exerting influence are exhausted and ensuring that Washington can identify an achievable mission that will have both domestic and international support. Powell argued that U.S. forces should intervene in a country only if U.S. “national interests” were in danger of being significantly impacted.

The invasion of Panama, code-named “Operation Just Cause”, was a cakewalk for the U.S. military but a brutal experience for the Panamanian people. It was widely condemned internationally as a breach of international law; 27,000 U.S. troops invaded Panama City, the capital, to oust President Manuel Noriega, who until a few years before the invasion was a prized asset of the U.S.’ Central Intelligence Agency. Aerial strikes on impoverished civilian areas near the main army barracks in the capital city preceded the invasion and cost more than a thousand civilians their lives. In 2018, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in San Jose, Costa Rica, issued a ruling blaming the U.S. for the invasion and demanded reparations from Washington.

Operation Desert Storm

The Washington establishment accorded Powell most of the credit for the “successful” conduct of the first Gulf War, code-named “Operation Desert Storm”. Before the war began, Powell told the media about the approach the U.S. military would be taking. “Our strategy in going after this army is very simple,” Powell said. “First we are going to cut it off, then we are going to kill it.” The Iraqi army retreating from Kuwait was ruthlessly massacred in what the U.S. media described as “a chicken shoot”. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers were killed. The U.S. forces did not give them an opportunity to surrender. Writing in Los Angeles Times, Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism, referred to Operation Desert Storm “as the massacre that we call the Gulf War”. He said it was “one of the most concentrated attacks on an entire society in modern warfare”.

But Powell’s reputation was only further enhanced, making him one of the most popular figures in the U.S. So much so that Bush Senior thought of replacing his Vice President with Powell in the 1992 presidential election. Bill Clinton won that election, but Powell’s influence in the corridors of power in Washington remained strong. It was mainly due to the so-called Powell Doctrine that the Clinton administration did not deploy troops in the Balkans at the height of the Yugoslav conflict. Instead, the U.S. resorted to 70 days of an aerial war against the Yugoslav Federation that resulted in the disintegration of the federation and was the precursor to the Second Gulf War, which led to the disastrous invasion of Iraq.

Also read: Iraq Syndrome

And it was Powell, as Secretary of State under the presidency of George W. Bush, who ironically played a big role in consigning to the back burner the military and political doctrine he had himself advocated. After the events of 9/11, Powell supported the Bush administration’s plan to invade Afghanistan. He had advocated a more cautious line on Iraq but, when it came to the crunch, sided with the neoconservatives in the Bush Cabinet like Cheney and Rumsfeld. According to Plan of Action, Bob Woodward’s book on the Bush administration’s conduct of the Iraq war, it was Powell who convinced Bush to take the U.S. plan to invade Iraq to the United Nations. From the beginning there was little international support for the invasion of Iraq.

His Credibility took a hit

Powell’s credibility, along with that of the U.S. government, took a precipitate hit after his appearance before the U.N. Security Council on February 5, 2003, to present his case for war against Iraq. Powell told the Security Council in a 76-minute-long speech that the U.S. had irrefutable evidence that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. Holding up a vial of what he said could be a biological weapon from Iraq, Powell said: “Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction.” He presented fabricated details of what he claimed were Iraq’s attempts at making “germ” weapons. He even went to the extent of falsely claiming to possess evidence that President Saddam Hussein had ordered his army to use poison gas in the event that the U.S. Army invaded Iraq. “Every statement I make today,” Powell told the Security Council, “is backed up by sources, solid sources.” The White House had given Powell a speech to read and he did as ordered. Powell could have taken the high moral ground and resigned and in the process could have stopped the war that had ended up destabilising the entire region. Powell later on claimed that he really had no other choice but to obey the commands of the President. “I participated in a hoax on the American people, the international community and the United Nations,” Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell’s Chief of Staff at the time, later conceded.

The Security Council was not convinced, but Powell’s bravura performance at the U.N. convinced a large section of the U.S. public about the need for the war and convinced wavering Democratic politicians such as Joseph Biden and John Kerry to support the war in the Senate. “Secretary Powell made a very powerful speech and, I think, an irrefutable case before the Security Council,” Biden had said at the time. Powell admitted in 2011 that the U.N. speech “was a blot on his record” but claimed that it was “failed intelligence” that made him do it. Before that, he had defended the invasion, claiming that getting rid of the “terrible dictator” Saddam Hussein was a significant achievement and worth fighting for.

Powell did not express any remorse for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed as a result of the military intervention. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the Security Council in 2004 that the invasion was an “illegal” act under international law. Muntadhar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who became famous after hurling a shoe at President George W. Bush during a press conference in Baghdad in 2008, tweeted that he was sad that Powell died without facing a tribunal for his crimes against the Iraqi people. Salam Ali, a member of the central committee of the Iraqi Communist Party, said: “Colin Powell is among the top officials of the U.S. administration responsible for waging that criminal war, and misleading the world with fabricated information, who should have been held accountable for what they did.”

Also read: Imperial dreams

Powell was so popular at one time within the political establishment that both the Republicans and the Democrats wanted him to run for President on their platforms. In 1996, he was on the verge of declaring his candidacy on a Republican ticket but backed out at the eleventh hour. Although Powell was a registered Republican until a year before his death, he had grown distant from the party after the Iraq debacle. In 2008, he supported Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate. In the last election too, he supported the Democrats and was outspoken in his criticism of Donald Trump.

President Joseph Biden hailed Powell “as a patriot of unmatched honour and dignity who rose to the highest ranks of the United States military and to advise four Presidents”. There was bipartisan praise for the departed general. The only glaring exception was Trump, who said that the media were going overboard in their praise. He said that Powell was a “fake” Republican who had made many “big mistakes” on Iraq. Throughout his term in office, Trump was critical of all the Republicans, including President George W. Bush, responsible for starting the war in Iraq. But once in power, Trump kept the U.S. military in Iraq and actually expanded the its presence illegally into parts of neighbouring Syria.

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