In terms of legacy, there were two Colin Powells.
One is an inspiring American hero, whose life journey represents the progress America has made. It was a magnificent, fairy tale American success story that took the poor son of Jamaican immigrants from the Bronx, through America’s racist and discriminatory 1950s and 1960s – when he served in a military that was newly desegregated while much of the country was firmly segregated – to becoming the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the national security adviser to one president and the secretary of state to another.
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The other is the story of a former four-star general, a Vietnam War veteran, who as secretary of state was complicit in making the case for, and did not object to, the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He knew a colossal fiasco was coming, yet did nothing of substance to prevent it, although he arguably could have.
Powell’s story and career is incredibly exhilarating. His ascent from a Yiddish-mumbling, floor-washing student to a four-star general is nothing short of a real life Horatio Alger story.
When he was appointed as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989, he was the first to serve under the newly enacted Goldwater-Nichols bill, which elevated and defined the role as the “principal military adviser" to the president and the secretary of defense. The idea was to streamline the chain of command, but the added effect was to turn the chairman into a major high-profile player. Powell did just that.
By the time Powell had left the military in 1993, he was arguably the most popular public figure in the U.S., rivaling only Michael Jordan.
Contemporary commentators and pundits often draw an analogy between Powell and Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in World War II and later the 34th president. Powell, went the conventional wisdom, was so popular as chairman that he was destined for at least a run at the presidency.
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In his 1995 memoir "An American Journey," Powell said that he had thought long and hard about it, but admitted to himself that he lacked the desire and drive.
A self-described Independent, he was vigorously courted by both parties. He turned down Bill Clinton’s offer to serve as secretary of state after the 1996 election, only to become the top U.S. diplomat under George W. Bush in January 2001.
A tenure that commenced with favorable publicity and stardom became a lengthy, tedious battle for influence, with Powell increasingly frustrated and feeling he was out of the inner loop, the one where Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld conferred with the president regularly and influenced his policies in a way the secretary of state was unable to do.
After the Gulf War, which he oversaw in 1991 as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Powell supported leaving a severely beaten and weakened Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq, as a potential counter to Iran.
In 2002, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, when Bush, encouraged and pressed heavily by Cheney and Rumsfeld, weighed an invasion of Iraq, Powell tried to warn him.
An invasion, he said to Bush, would destabilize the Middle East, disrupt oil markets and embolden sectarian conflict in Iraq and neighboring countries. It would also, he added, constitute a significant diversion of energy, resources and focus from the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In an August 2002 meeting with Bush, Powell reiterated this message and cautioned Bush that “if you break it, you own it.” But apart from these conversations, Powell did not present a meaningful opposition to the war. Later, he said he didn’t think it was his place to do so, despite being the secretary of state, since he believed the president had a constitutional prerogative.
With the clouds of war thickening in early 2003, Powell met in Washington with an old friend and colleague, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
The two had a long relationship, going back to when they both planned a visit to Israel by then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in 1981. That relationship grew closer and stronger during their almost concurrent terms as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Powell, 1989-1993) and chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (Barak, 1991-1995).
When they met in 2003, Barak said that it wasn't for him to comment or offer unsolicited advice on a possible invasion of Iraq. Far from it. But in the event you do decide to invade, he said, here are my two cents on geopolitics: Do not dissolve the Iraqi army, do not disarm it and do not break up the central government. These steps, he warned, would generate a division into a Kurdish north, a Sunni center and a Shi'ite south – and would create a multitude of militias and lead to foreign intervention, weakening Iraq as a potential counterforce to Iran.
Powell agreed. The U.S. then proceeded to do the exact opposite.
His most famous, and for him most regrettable, moment came at the United Nations Security Council in February 2003. The same Powell who had cautioned the president about the adverse, unintended consequences of an invasion stood in front of the world and argued compellingly in favor of the war.
In a lengthy, 76 minute-long speech, Powell explained and litigated the case for going to war in order to “disarm Iraq.” Using written testimonies, photographs and evidence from electronic surveillance, Powell argued that the U.S. effectively had no other option.
“Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option in a post-September 11 world”, Powell said. A month later, the U.S. invaded Iraq based on intelligence that was either false or cherry-picked and made to fit a narrative. Powell suspected this and later knew it for a fact.
Jewish tradition calls for refraining from criticizing or pointing to the flaws of the deceased, but Voltaire perhaps made a more appropriate case when he wrote: “We owe respect to the living; we owe the dead only the truth.”
Powell himself, to be fair, also knew that all his great achievements would not compensate for his role in the Iraq fiasco. In an ABC interview with Barbara Walters in 2005, he said that the speech two years earlier was personally “painful” and confessed that it would be “a blot” on his record. He was right.