The death of former secretary of state Colin Powell yesterday recalls an old debate about the nature of duty: is it a matter of blind loyalty to one’s leaders, no matter how foolish or destructive their actions are? Or is it about fidelity to a higher principle than merely following orders — about having the courage and integrity to stand by fundamental principles?
While it may be unfair for any one person’s life to be boiled down to a single event, the Iraq War was such a world-historic disaster — having killed hundreds of thousands and destabilized an already volatile region, that Powell’s crucial role in its making deserves to be the headline in any account of his legacy.
Yes, Powell did play his much-ballyhooed role as the voice of moderation within the extremist George W. Bush administration. That’s a little like being the cleverest of the Three Stooges, but let’s give Powell his due: he warned Bush that Iraq could be a disaster (“You break it, you own it,” as he famously said), and in the run-up to war, he was one of a few lonely voices trying to engineer some sort of non-military solution to the course Bush and the rest of his flunkies had already decided on, no matter how clearly doomed those efforts were. Unfortunately for Powell (and the people of Iraq), he was constantly out-maneuvered and undermined by those very flunkies, rendering his campaign of gentle persuasion useless to halt the march to war.
Instead, Powell’s real triumph and influence was in paving the way for that war. As the administration’s most popular and trusted figure, both among the public and the community of foreign leaders aghast at the insanity coming out of the Bush White House, Powell was cannily chosen by Bush to sell both groups on the merits and urgency of blowing up Iraq to smithereens. This was the famous “blot” on Powell’s record, as he would later call it, his infamous lie-filled February 2003 speech to the UN that saw him muster all the respect and integrity he’d accrued over a decades-long career, and promptly squander it.
In the seventy-six-minute speech, Powell hit on all the major pieces of bullshit that were central to the fraudulent case for war: Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program, Saddam Hussein’s links to al-Qaeda, and the link between Iraq and anthrax, the biological agent that had terrified the country when it was mailed anonymously around the country after the September 11 attacks — with Powell manipulatively holding up a small vial as he spoke (Powell’s team had first considered having him hold up one of the infamous aluminum tubes, but decided that was a bridge too far). Among his shoddy pieces of evidence was testimony from an al-Qaeda commander who had been “rendered” to Egypt and tortured for two weeks, testimony the CIA would admit was bunk a year later.
Powell’s speech was then used by every war-hungry party in the US political system, from newspapers like the Washington Post to then senator and now president Joe Biden, to make the case for war, and it was pivotal to creating public support for the war among both US and British people. “These are not assertions,” Powell had told viewers. “What we’re giving you are facts.”
This was, of course, not true. But the greatest shame of Powell’s life and legacy is not only that he used his considerable esteem to give credence to lies — Powell and his defenders would imply for the rest of his life that he had simply been duped by the CIA. It’s that Powell knew that it wasn’t true, and he did it anyway.
His team ignored the objections coming from the State Department’s own intelligence gathering division to some of the material contained in his speech. “This is bullshit,” he reportedly erupted just three days before giving the speech, as he looked over the evidence prepared for him. It had, after all, been less than two years since he had said that Hussein hadn’t “developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction,” and even less since he told the Senate that he hadn’t “been terribly successful” in pursuing a program of WMDs.
But Powell was now toeing the company line, telling CNN that “there is a solid case that [Hussein] has weapons of mass destruction,” persuading Congressional holdouts, publicly defending lies like the aluminum tubes despite evidence being revealed it had been forged, and misleadingly telling Congress that a tape of Osama bin Laden calling for Muslims to defend Iraq (while referring to its ruling Baath party as “infidels”) was actually bin Laden talking about “how he is in partnership with Iraq.” Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass, who worked for Powell during all this, defends him today by claiming Powell scrubbed most of the CIA misinformation from his speech. But Powell’s deceit went well beyond that one day in February, as pivotal as it was.
In fact, Powell was reportedly so pleased with the speech once he’d delivered it, he ordered special plaques for everyone who’d had a hand in crafting it. Days earlier, when Biden had warned him not to “speak to anything you don’t know about,” Powell replied, after some silence: “Someday when we’re both out of office, we’ll have a cup of coffee and I’ll tell you why.”
It’s exactly this “why” that sums up the tragedy of this man. The reason Powell readily played a role in this crime, despite all his misgivings, is almost farcical: loyalty. Powell thought of himself as part of the Bush family and, what’s more, decided that being a soldier meant mindlessly carrying out your superiors’ orders no matter how foolish, destructive, or downright evil. Makes sense. This was, after all, the same man who, when tasked with investigating the notorious My Lai massacre in Vietnam, instead whitewashed it, declaring that the allegations were refuted by the fact that “relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.” (Predictably, Powell’s loyalty went unreturned: Bush fired Powell shortly after he was reelected, not even bothering to personally ask for his resignation).
For all the “integrity” that newspapers and politicians seem almost contractually obliged to ascribe to Powell, he was rarely willing to take responsibility for his actions. “I’m not an intelligence officer. I was secretary of state. Whatever was in that speech was what they told me,” he said in 2006. “It’s annoying to me,” he said about having his speech cited as a key moment in the rush to war. “The same goddamn case was presented to the US senate and the congress and they voted for [Bush’s Iraq] resolution. . . . Why aren’t they outraged? They’re the ones who are supposed to do oversight.” This is far from the only time Powell has used this excuse, and he was similarly slippery when asked about his role in approving torture. Give him points for consistency: Powell saw his role as a drone mindlessly following orders while he was in power, and that’s his defense out of it, too.
This is, unfortunately, the warped conception of patriotism that prevails in Washington and that Powell embodied, which put the United States on the dark road it went down under Bush. Far from putting “country before self,” as Biden put it, Powell’s most cherished principle was unflinching obedience to authority and hierarchy, and he held to it to the detriment of the country and soldiers he claimed to serve.
Instead of using it to sell this crime, Powell could have used his considerable public standing to undermine the administration’s push for war by resigning and speaking out about what was going on, preventing countless Iraqi and American deaths. That’s the courageous choice whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden made, at considerable personal cost. Instead, Powell pretended he hadn’t been fired and was always planning to resign, before hitting the lecture circuit, raking in handsome payoffs for speeches to corporate boards.
If you’re upset by the idea Powell might be remembered as subservient to the point of mass murder, rest assured this is exactly how he preferred it. Attacked by nemesis and former vice president Dick Cheney for supposedly undermining Bush’s war by not being sufficiently supportive of it, Powell insisted in 2011 this couldn’t be further from the truth. Pointing out that it was Cheney who had gone out in public to undermine the cautious advice he’d been giving Bush in private, Powell reminded viewers:
He also says that I was not supportive of the president’s decisions. Well, who went to the United Nations and, regrettably, with a lot of false information? It was me. It wasn’t Mr. Cheney. I supported the president. I support the president’s decisions.
Yep, that about sums it up.