“A Dark Blot”

How Colin Powell Could Have Stopped The War Part 2

Many of us feel betrayed by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, sold out for reasons which remain murky at best. Powell almost single-handedly sold President Bush's “war on Terrorism” to the American public, squandering both his unassailable integrity and our unconditional trust in it on the failed policies of a dilettante Goober president. There was a moment in time when the eyes of the world were on Powell, and, in that moment, Powell had it in his hands to prevent this war.

There's a great deal of sadness

surrounding the image of General Colin Luther Powell, the 65th United States Secretary of State. Powell was, easily, the most credible member of the Bush Administration and, truth be told, one of the most credible voices in the country, if not the world. Depending on whom you believe, Powell was either given faulty intelligence information or was lied to outright. Either way, the Bush Administration, realizing its casus beli ("cause for war") was flimsy and largely unsupported by the American people, saw in Powell the perfect choice to sell the president's Iraq obsession to the country. Powell had made his reservations about the president's Iraq policy known, most famously in the now often quoted “Pottery Barn Rule,” referring to a “you break it, you own it” policy of a retail store that holds a customer responsible for damage done to displayed merchandise. Powell was widely quoted by news media in April 2004 after being prominently mentioned in the book Plan of Attack by Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward.

According to Woodward, Powell cited this rule when warning President George W. Bush, in the summer of 2002, of the consequences of military action in Iraq. “You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people,” he told the president. “You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You'll own it all.”

Being first and foremost a career soldier, who'd served as National Security Advisor (1987–89) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989–93), Powell is a loyalist who follows orders. And, so, on February 5, 2003, Powell addressed a plenary session of the United Nations to argue in favor of the action. Citing “numerous” anonymous Iraqi defectors, Powell asserted that “[t]here can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.”

Powell also stated that there was “no doubt in my mind” that Saddam was working to obtain key components to produce nuclear weapons. While Powell's oratorical skills and personal conviction were acknowledged, there was an overall rejection of the evidence Powell offered that the regime of Saddam Hussein possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). A Senate report on intelligence failures would later detail the intense debate that went on behind the scenes on what to include in the speech. State Department analysts had found dozens of factual problems in drafts of the speech. Some of the claims were taken out, but still others were left in, for example claims based on the Yellowcake Forgery. WIKIPEDIA.ORG

Once the tanks started rolling, Powell's influence and his very presence became increasingly diminished, as National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dominated the foreign policy news. Time Magazine even ran a cover story about Powell's diminishing influence in the administration, and rumors abounded that Powell—who was wholly unfireable as his single voice was largely responsible for selling the president's flawed and untrue case for war—was considering resigning. According to Powell himself, that was not true: he never considered resigning. It's not who the man is.

The tragic irony, however, is that Powell is perhaps a man undone by his own ethics. As the president's increasingly irrational claims and his stubborn refusal to allow the UN inspectors to complete their search for weapons of mass destruction pushed the country towards war, Powell could have, almost single-handedly, stopped the war machine in its tracks by simply resigning. By showing no confidence in the president's bizarre and tragic march to war.

It's unfair to suggest we are at war because of Colin Powell. We are, most surely, at war because of George W. Bush. But, searching about for a voice the American people would have confidence in, a voice we would trust to do the right thing, Bush found his rescue in Colin Powell, a man he had not much use for outside of this cruel appropriation of the former general's ethics.

In the terrible wake of the 9-11 attacks, President George W. Bush had absolutely no ability to calm, reassure or comfort Americans. Everyone sees what they want to see, and I'm sure some folk thought he was just the nicest sort, but the credible voice, the voice that calmed and comforted most of the nation, was that of the former president, Bill Clinton, who was attempting to maintain a low profile but cameras are, of course, wont to seek him out.

The fact is, the current president comes across like a liar. His cocky, half-lean on the podium, his clumsy inarticulation—whose charm was exhausted long ago—his clear unfamiliarity with facts, names, dates and places— this is not a voice that inspires trust. Not a posture that speaks of leadership. It is not a relationship we can rest in.

Which was why he needed to find somebody we'd trust. Someone whose word we would take at face value. And that face had to speak of rock-solid leadership while not upstaging the president, as Former President Clinton does every time he draws breath. That voice, that man, was Colin Powell. A guy whose advice the president shunned, a man whose worldview was all but diametrically opposed to Bush's, a man whose intellect ruled his emotion even as the president chose to see what he wanted to see and reject whatever didn't fit his march-to-war scenario.

Powell was cruelly used by this president. For this president, Colin Powell served mainly one key purpose: to shore up confidence in whatever stupid idea the president had at the time. Just having Powell stand behind or near the president while he was speaking would imbue the president's remarks with greater weight; Powell's personal gravity lending credibility to even the most incredulous claims and obvious attempts to sell the American people a lemon of irreducibly tragic proportions. He was the president's face. His front man. That Powell was black was a bonus; Powell's personal popularity and integrity completely obliterated any notice of his race, while the Secretary's race neutralized the president's heavy negatives in the black community and inspired African Americans to trust what Powell—and, by extension, the president—said.

So, on February 5th, 2003, Mr. Powell went off to the United Nations to make the president's case for war. He was, largely, unsuccessful in convincing the international community—most of whom realized, from jump, this was a lie and a hoax; at best a revenge fetish for the president, at worst a naked grab for power in the Mideast. But Powell dutifully did as he was instructed to, and his underdog status, as well as his humanness, his heroic stature, scored a big win with the American pubic, even as he alienated a great deal of the international community.

The sad part, for me, though, was that, in making Powell hold the president's bag, Mr. Bush had also given Powell enormous power. Secretary Powell's speech at the U.N. could have prevented this war, or certainly, severely damaged it.

I remember sitting glued to my TV, listening to every word as Powell began his presentation, and wondering how the nation would reel were Powell to abruptly stop his presentation and confess that he simply can't go on. Had Colin Powell, Secretary of State, stood up in the UN and resigned in protest, I sincerely doubt we'd be in the morass we're in right now.

To have done so would have violated, likely, every ethic Powell holds dear, but it would have been for a greater good. And Powell's place in history would be a lot less murky than it is now: a brilliant and heroic figure brought low by the failed policies of a dilettante Goober president.

But, here we are, with Powell sailing off into history on a flat note. Thousands of lives lost—American, British, bust mostly Iraqis; thousands of dead Iraqis over nothing. Over a regime that was absolutely no threat to us. Thousands of new bin Ladens created in the orphaned sons of dead Iraqis killed for this nonsense.

And Colin Powell could have prevented it. Or at least, mortally wounded the president. But he chose ethics and loyalty over conscience. He did his duty. He obeyed orders. And, in so doing, he's squandered, first and most immediately, the previously unassailable trust of Black America. Many of us feel betrayed by Powell, sold out by Powell's standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a president who'd never allow his own kids in combat, but had no problem sending thousands of young men and women to be maimed and crippled for life, or killed for reasons which remain murky at best.

Click To Play Video

Now It Can Be Told: the step-by-step true story of how the American people were sold on the Iraq war.

Checking Out Of The Process

It really is very sad, a kind of squandered greatness. This week, while the nation's attention remains riveted on the very sad affairs of the Gulf region, Colin Powell's admission that his UN appearance will remain “a dark blot” on his otherwise brilliant career, more or less flew beneath most of our radar. Which may have been the idea.

The president's sudden shift of Judge John Roberts from replacing retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Conner to replacing Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who died of cancer last week, was no accident, either. Bush's main objective, of course, is to secure his own place in history as more than just the worst president in modern history—which he arguably is. He's trying to seat the most conservative supreme court in the nation's history.

Under heavy fire for his bungling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, Bush needs a win and a big one. So, rather than appoint Roberts—who was likely to sail through as, for a conservative, he's apparently not that bad—he shifted Roberts to replace the top judge, thus locking in a conservative for the heavily influential chief justice for, presumably, decades to come. It was smart politics, and this president's very existence is the product of very smart people around him, but it was also the path of least resistance; a run to the checkered flag for a president in desperate need of good press.

It is likely a great deal of Black America has checked out of the confirmation process, feeling, justifiably so, that we have little voice in what happens, and the “moral” right has a death grip on power in this country so they're going to do whatever they please. It is also likely many if not most of us missed Secretary Powell's contrition, his admission of mistakes made. That was certainly huge, and went a long way to restore my respect for a man who abandoned his own judgment.

But I still can't help but marvel about what might have been. How the president's war might have been delayed or, dare we believe, denied entirely. On February 5th, 2003, Colin Powell stood in the center of the known universe. All eyes were on him.

And he blew it.

Christopher J. Priest
12 September 2005

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