Home Opinion and Features The mixed legacy of Colin Powell

The mixed legacy of Colin Powell


While Powell’s reputation was irrevocably blemished by his willingness to be the public face, defending an unjust war that should have never have happened, he remained much loved by Americans, writes Shannon Ebrahim.

Late former US secretary of state Colin Powell. File picture: AP Photo/Christine Nesbitt

ONE CAN often measure the greatness of a man in how willing he is to acknowledge his mistakes and express remorse for them. It is a personality trait that is hard to come by in politicians and seldom, if ever, in four-star generals. That is what contributed to Colin Powell being a great leader and human being.

He did not have the hubris that would ordinarily have come with the impressive line of high-profile positions that he held in the corridors of power. He never forgot where he came from, he never overestimated himself, and he strove to live by his principles. The challenge for him was that his principles were often in conflict with the role his country was playing in the world, and it became harder and harder for him to defend.

Powell said of his second tour in Vietnam in 1968: “I had gone off to Vietnam in 1962, standing on a bedrock of principle and convictions, and I had watched the foundation eroded by euphemisms, lies and self-deception.” While Powell was aware of the horror of American military intervention in Vietnam, he was also party to what happened there. He may not have been personally involved in the 1968 massacre in My Lai, but he was part of the division which tried to keep what happened from coming out.

Investigations revealed that the American Division had killed 347 men, women and children. In Powell’s 1995 autobiography, he said: “My Lai was an appalling example of much that had gone wrong in Vietnam. The involvement of so many unprepared officers and non-coms led to breakdowns in morale, discipline, and professional judgment—and to horrors like My Lai—as the troops became numb to what appeared to be endless and mindless slaughter.”

But Powell was, however, silent on how the military brass (including himself) responded to the horrors.

His experience in Vietnam shaped Powell’s perception of how American military power should be used in the world, which was later dubbed the Powell doctrine. He had studied the work of military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who believed that ‘war was the continuation of politics by other means’.

But what formed the basis of Powell’s doctrine was the emphasis on restraint and the idea that every use of the US military should have clear and achievable goals — and sufficient resources to guarantee success. Powell also saw it as important to have public support at home and from allies around the world. “We owe it to the men and women who go in harm’s way to make sure that their lives are not squandered for unclear purposes,” he wrote in a New York Times op-ed in 1992.

At the age of 49, Powell became the first African American National Security Adviser, appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. In 1988, he was appointed by President George Bush Snr to become the first African American chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

He took on this role as the Cold War was ending, and he was remembered for having said: “The old world map, as we knew it, of a red side and a blue side that competed for something called the Third World, is gone. And the new map is a mosaic, a mosaic of many different pieces and many different colours spreading around the world.” In 1989, Powell became one of the youngest four-star generals in American history during peacetime, at the age of 52.

But the new world order involved successive US military interventions around the world. Probably one of the only ones considered to be a success was the intervention in Kuwait in 1991 to eject Saddam Hussein’s forces.

Initially, Powell was uncomfortable with Bush’s commitment to responding with force, but when he was pushed into it, his approach was to go in with overwhelming force and only with clear and attainable objectives and with an exit strategy in place.

But Powell went on to preside over some major US strategic failures, which had neither attainable objectives nor a clear exit strategy. The most obvious one being the misconceived US military intervention in Somalia in 1992 and 1993, which ended in failure. Despite the Somali fiasco, in 1994 Powell was the most respected figure in American public life.

In 2001, Powell became the first African American Secretary of State under President George W Bush and had to work with the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. In the aftermath of 9/11, Powell had cautioned against the dangers of going to war, and pointed to the human, political and diplomatic costs of doing so, but he was overruled.

Powell’s greatest blunder was when he went to the UN on February 5th 2003, to sell the US invasion of Iraq to the world on faulty claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Powell had told the UN body that Iraq’s claims that it did not have WMD represented “a web of lies”. He went further, saying: “These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid evidence.”

These were statements he lived to regret, which tarnished his image as a trustworthy statesman forever. The difference between Powell and most other politicians is that he owned his mistake, and he later openly expressed remorse.

“I am mostly mad at myself for not having smelled the problem,” Powell wrote in his 2012 book, My instincts failed me. After Powell retired in 2005, he called the Iraq war a “blot” on his career. “I am the one who presented it (the invasion proposal) on behalf of the United States to the world, and (it) will always be a part of my record… It was painful… It’s painful now.”

What is particularly disconcerting is the fact that South Africa, under President Thabo Mbeki, played a key role in the months leading up to Powell’s infamous UN speech, trying to convince the Bush administration that Iraq did not have WMD.

As author John Matisonn wrote in his book God, Spies and Lies, South Africa had a special insight into Iraq’s potential for WMD because the apartheid government’s own biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programme in the 1980s led the countries to collaborate. The programme was abandoned after the end of white minority rule in 1994, but the expert team, known as Project Coast, was put back together by Mbeki to investigate the US and UK assertion that Saddam had WMD.

Mbeki asked for the team to be granted access. “Saddam agreed and gave the South African team the freedom to roam unfettered throughout Iraq,” Matisonn contended, who says he drew on sources in Whitehall and the South African Cabinet. In January 2003, a month before Powell’s speech to the UN, Mbeki sent a team to Washington to explain the findings, but to no avail. The South Africans were simply ignored.

While Powell’s reputation was irrevocably blemished by his willingness to be the public face, defending an unjust war that should have never have happened, he remained much loved by Americans.

One of his colleagues summed up the essence of the man when he said: “He treated people the way he expected them to treat each other, and he made sure that they knew he would always have their back. The result was that his people would walk through walls for him.”

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Group Foreign Editor.


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