There were many worse American generals in the last century than Colin Powell, men who also died, like Powell, largely celebrated for their accomplishments. Curtis LeMay (firebombed Tokyo; nearly incited a third world war on multiple occasions), Douglas MacArthur (provoked the Korean War; attempted to start nuclear war), and perhaps Tommy Franks (oversaw the invasion of Iraq), to name a few.
But Powell was uniquely bad, fundamentally a bureaucrat and public relations man for the American political and military establishment. His consistent popularity, even after the debacle of the Iraq War and the George W. Bush administration political morass, speaks to the success of his mendacity and not the height of his virtue. The fatuous and fulsome remembrances of the Generalas many of his former deputies supplicatingly still refer to the former secretary of statebear striking resemblances to the cults of personality in the sort of military dictatorships with which Powell allied and fought against his whole life.
Virtually every obituary of Powell, whose death from complications of COVID-19 was announced on Monday, dutifully lists the basic facts of his life and career. Born to Jamaican immigrant parents in the South Bronx; receiving an officer commission from City College, setting him on a trajectory that would take him further than any Black man had previously gone in the U.S. government.
Through Powells career, we can find a kind of counter-history of the past 50 years of U.S. history.
And many remembrances went further in aggrandizing his character while overlooking his misdeeds. Humility, so much at the core of Colin Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants and graduate of a City College of New York, was job one, wrote former NATO commander and current Carlyle Group managing director James Stavridis. He was a man of ideas, but he wasnt ideological, said Secretary of State Antony Blinken. He populated the arc of his light with people he was good to, recalled Kori Schake, a former Powell subordinate now at the American Enterprise Institute, in The Atlantic. We are heartbroken by the passing of our Salesforce family and board member, General Colin Powell, posted the business software giant. He was a remarkable leader who devoted his life to public service and was instrumental in shaping how we use our platform for change.
Colin Powell was a bad general, not because he was single-handedly responsible for most of the horrors to which his name can be attached. And that is a long list: helping cover up My Lai; smuggling arms from the Army to the CIA for Iran-Contra deals; obliterating a fleeing Iraqi army on the so-called highway of death in the Gulf War; and, most infamously, lying for the Bush administration to generate the fig leaf of international support required to invade and occupy Iraq.
Through Powells career, however, we can find a kind of counter-history of the past 50 years of U.S. history. Not in the way that many of his obituary writers now claim, but sure, Colin Powells story can be mapped onto that of Americas. Its a story of covert actions, overt lies and lies by omission, and, most of all, basic character tests of decency almost never passed. And of making out just fine in the private sector all the same.
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POWELLS MILITARY SERVICE began in Vietnam. As a major, he participated in the cover-up of the My Lai massacre, failing to investigate claims of atrocities reported by American soldiers to military leaders. Once stateside in the early 1970s, he got an MBA and a Nixon White House fellowship where became close with future Reagan defense secretaryand indicted Iran-Contra co-conspiratorCaspar Weinberger.
After a stint in South Korea and points of command in Kansas and Colorado, Powell relocated to Washington in 1983, where he became now-Secretary Weinbergers military assistant. Helping oversee the invasion of Grenada that year, assisting Weinbergers controversial requests to ramp up military spending against an obviously declining Soviet UnionPowell was a key military player in President Reagans plan to resurrect Americas Cold War mojo after Vietnam.
On January 18, 1986, the day after Reagan officially signed off on the illegal covert arms-for-hostages deal with Iran, Powell played his bit part in the scandal to become known as Iran-Contra. With Reagans seal of approval on selling anti-tank missiles, the next step was to move the weapons from the Army to the CIA, which could handle the sale. Once again, a question of due diligence had appeared on Powells desk.
Powell was soon warned by a Pentagon adviser that there was no lawful way to transfer the weapons without notifying Congress, according to national-security reporter Tim Weiner. No matter; Powell writes in his memoir that because of Reagans secret order for the arms sale, the deal was kosher. The only unkosher aspects were those which he had nothing to do with: steering profits from the sales to right-wing militants strictly disallowed from U.S. support by Congress (the Contras), and the fibs some people told to cover the whole thing up.
The scheme was still foolhardy, but now legal, Powell later concluded. Illegality, in what came to be known as the Iran-contra affair, grew out of other elements.
Tannen Maury/AP Photo
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell speak to reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon, August 9, 1990.
Powells limp defense for pursuing a flagrantly illegal course of action (Iran had been under an American arms embargo since the 1979 revolution) is that he transferred the weapons from the Army to the CIA under the auspices of the Economy Act. Knowing that such a justification would be moot if the arms were going to a foreign countryan action requiring disclosure to CongressPowell drafted a memo for his unhappy boss, which he further passed on to the national-security adviser.
Though Powell observes that timely congressional notification might have blown this scheme out of the water, one wonders why he didnt feel compelled to say anything himself. For his work behind the scenes, he was rewarded. By the end of the year, as Iran-Contra forced the exit of his bosses, Powell was tapped as Reagans deputy national-security adviser, before assuming the full position in 1987.
TWO YEARS LATER, President George H.W. Bush named Powell chairman of the Joint Chiefsthe commander of the American military, the youngest ever at age 52 and again a first for a Black American. Colin Powell became the chairman exactly at the moment the Soviet Union began to crumble as a plausible military threat. Between Powells assumption of the chairmanship in 1989 and the official dissolution of the USSR at the end of 1991, the general moved out of the Pentagons and Reagans shadows and into the limelight.
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Four-Star Power: Colin Powells Career Has Proceeded With the Certainty of a Laser-Guided Missile. How Much Higher Will He Go? ran an April 1991 headline in the Los Angeles Times weekend magazine. The transformational event: the Gulf War.
The summer before, Iraqs economy had been in upheaval after the stalemate ending of the Iran-Iraq War. Saddam Hussein found his internationally ostracized regime massively in debt to the United States and neighboring Arab countries, which had happily supplied credit and weapons for the decade-long war against Iran.
After Iraq invaded the tiny neighboring kingdom of Kuwait in August 1990, the U.S. military, led by four-star Gen. Colin Powell, launched Operation Desert Shield, positioning American power as a kind of universal gendarme, preparing a coalition for a broader war (This aggression will not stand) and building up a 600,000-troop presence in the region, namely in Saudi Arabia.
He later recalled this moment as a make-or-break test of will: Its important to plant the American flag in the Saudi desert as soon as possible. Powell had himself conceded that he thought he was reasonably sure that the Iraqis had not yet decided to invade Saudi Arabia, but better safe than sorry.
Or perhaps Powell was reasonably sure because he understood the pretext to be fictitious.
One reporter asked Defense Secretary Dick Cheneys office for evidence of Iraqi plans to invade Saudi Arabia. Despite three requests, no evidence was provided, probably because it didnt exist.
Despite apparent private doubts about the justification for the largest mobilization of U.S. troops since Vietnam, Powell went along. Glory lay ahead.
Operation Desert Shield became Desert Storm in January 1991, as American and allied forces began air strikes on Iraqi army positions in Kuwait City. An unparalleled program of press censorship was enacted; a 48-hour news blackout at the outset of the ground war was instituted, among other onerous restrictions.
So what did Americans at home see? Or rather, who did they see? In addition to the surreal video gamelike spectacle of war, night-vision explosions, and swift victory, they got a lot of Colin Powell.
Powell was highly image-conscious. And many reporters treated Powell like he was the storymarveling at his career, speculating about whether he had Ike-like political aspirationsin the weeks before and as ground combat took place in mid-February.
His coup de grce would come in a January 23, 1991, press conference: Powell stood alongside Cheney and declared that the air battle against Saddam Hussein had been wonbut that American and allied forces should be ready for a ground war against the Iraqis.
Powell said that the Army was targeting nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons targets, and defended himself against one of the few critical press reports that had surfaced. There was a story earlier today about the infant formula factory, Powell said. It is not an infant formula factory any more than the Rabta chemical plant in Libya made aspirin. It was a biological weapons facility, of that we are sure, and we have taken it out. CNN reporter Peter Arnett, upon visiting the site, discovered that it was, in fact, a factory for producing baby formula.
TECH. SGT. JOE COLEMAN/U.S. Air Force
Demolished vehicles line Highway 80, also known as the highway of death, the route fleeing Iraqi forces took as they retreated from Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm.
POWELLS SEPTEMBER 1995 AUTOBIOGRAPHY, My American Journey, was the fastest-selling book in Random House history, according to the publisher. The general received a $6 million advance, and more than one million copies were printed at the time of the books release. I havent seen this many people since I went to the Powell book signing yesterday, quipped Sen. Bob Dole, who was a potential Powell political rival and future GOP presidential nominee.
Powell never ended up running for president, though his name was floated in every election between 1998 and 2016. The general was unable to square the circle of being a Black Republican during his theoretical best shot at the highest office, which may have been in 1996 as Newt Gingrich and his allies steered the party hard to the right. The Republican Party is like a noose around Powells neck, the Black Democratic pollster Ron Lester said in 1996.
The month that Powells autobiography was released, the pre-eminent Black historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. profiled him in The New Yorker. In Powell and the Black lite, Gates discussed with the general how being Black was best navigated in the corridors of power, how he has come to be seen as a paragon of something like racial erasure. Powell responded:
One, I dont shove it in their face, you know? he says. I dont bring any stereotypes or threatening visage to their presence. Some black people do. Two, I can overcome any stereotypes or reservations they have, because I perform well. Third thing is, I aint that black. (emphasis in original)
Earlier on in the piece, Gates discusses Powell with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, then still considered the political conscience of Black America, less than a decade removed from his startling run for the presidency. Jackson, not known for warm feelings toward Powell, called him a phantom candidate because of how tight-lipped he was with his politics. We can all have positive assumptions, but we still dont know, Jackson said to Gates. We do know that very right-wing white people can trust him. They can trust him to drop bombs.
Less than two months after the Gates piece, Powell announced that he did not intend to seek the presidency. At the GOP convention that year, Powell defended a womans right to abortion and claimed himself as a proud beneficiary of affirmative action. Though it may have rubbed some Republicans the wrong way, Powells star remained undimmed.
In 1997, Powell created with his wife Americas Promise, a nonprofit promoting youth volunteerism through which he was able to solicit multimillion-dollar donations and make connections across corporate America: Oracle, Best Buy, Kellogg, and Taco Bell.
In the same way that you can trace the last 50 years of American foreign policy through his career, Powells hard pivot to the private sector maps onto spiraling American inequality. In fact, it foreshadowed more to come. According to one study, 70 percent of the three- and four-star generals and admirals who retired between 2009 and 2011 subsequently took jobs at defense contractors. And what about the sponsors of Americas Promise?
The Kellogg Co. is a perfect example of what happens when corporate America takes the lead in helping our nations at-risk young people, Powell had said. Thank you, Kelloggs, for your commitment to the children of America, referring to the companys $30 million in-kind donation, which would be in the form of messages about Americas Promise on 100 million of its cereal packages over the next 14 months the most cereal packaging space Kelloggs has ever dedicated to a socially responsible effort, according to Michigans Battle Creek Enquirer.
The year before, Kellogg cut 745 jobs at its Battle Creek plant, the city where both Kellogg and Post cereals were born. And two months after Powells mash note to Kellogg, unionized workers at the cereal company narrowly ratified a contract (52 percent to 48 percent) approving an hourly cost-of-living raise of $1.43 over three years. By September 1999, Kellogg workers in Battle Creek were told to expect 550 more layoffs.
The Battle Creek Kellogg facility still stands, employing some workers. They are now on strike, having been informed last month that Kellogg would be cutting more than 200 jobs by 2023.
Powell was in no such dire straits. At the time he was courting Kellogg to support needy children, Powell was building up a considerable bankroll. Since his retirement from the military seven years ago, Gen. Colin L. Powell has become wealthy through high-priced speaking engagements, The New York Times reported in January 2001, amassing an investment portfolio in excess of $28.2 million, according to his financial disclosure statement.
As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell holds a news briefing in the Pentagon press room on Operation Desert Shield, January 24, 1991.
AFTER 9/11 AND THROUGHOUT 2002, in multiple accounts, Powell claims to have watched others with more clout in the Bush White House successfully peddle their obsession with invading Iraq. During this time, the country was put on high alert: The PATRIOT Act was passed, DHS created, Afghanistan invaded, and anthrax mailed.
The American people wanted somebody killed, Powell later told The New York Times Robert Draper for the reporters 2020 book on the lead-up to the invasion, To Start a War. In the final substantive journalistic encounter of the generals career, Powell said his hesitancy on Iraq made him more powerful enemies in Bushworld: namely, his colleagues Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. In Powells telling, he was on the losing side of the argument. And in Drapers telling, Powell is flawed yet fundamentally noble. But Powells contributions, on balance, likely strengthened the case for war.
In an August 2002 meeting that Draper identifies as a key decision point, rather than voice doubts about the so-called intelligence being used to make the case for warlet alone the inherent foolhardiness of an invasionPowell told Bush that he should go to the United Nations.
It was Bush consigliere Karl Rove who suggested that Powell be the one to make the case to the world, as United Nations inspectors (whose dispatch had been wrangled, in part, by Powell) found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Looking to shore up more support, on January 13, 2003, in a one-on-one Oval Office meeting, Bush asked Powell straight up, Are you with me on this? He wanted Powell to be the one arguing for invading Iraq at the U.N. Had Powell said no to this, Draper points out, realistically prompting his resignation, Bushs case for war would have been much more difficult.
Weeks before delivering the speech, Powell was given a text prepared by Cheney chief of staff Scooter Libby, a document that Draper claims Powell viewed suspiciously, in particular the claims tying Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden. You guys really believe all this shit? Powell reportedly asked Cheney aides.
On February 5, Powell went to the U.N. The vial in his hand can never be forgotten, as he delivers lie after lie about Saddam Husseins biological, chemical, and possibly nuclear stockpileall represented by the teaspoon of simulated anthrax in his hand.
My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources, Powell declared. These are not assertions. What were giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.
Among those conclusions? The very evidence Powell had privately pooh-poohed: Iraq today harbours a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Powell said. An associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda lieutenants.
At the time, Joe Biden called Powells speech powerful and irrefutable.
Without much of a role in the war itselfand it being widely known that he was the resident squish in the CabinetPowell was pushed out of the Bush administration. Once Bush secured re-election in 2004, Powell resigned. In hindsight, he left at a good time; the Iraq War was not yet broadly unpopular (that would come the following year), and his own approval rating was 87 percent. Though Powell was reportedly furious that hed been made a patsy.
So what did Colin Powell, possibly the most widely liked man in American politics, do with this newfound status?
First, Powell joined the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Then, he effectively severed ties with the Republican Party, in 2008, endorsing Barack Obama for president. Powells bipartisan status affirmed for time immemorial, he cashed in once more. He took board seats at the top-50 federal contractor Salesforce and the fuel cell maker Bloom Energy.
What is the case for Colin Powell? The general was something like the emergency brake in every room he stood in, or the brakeman, as he told one journalist. He voiced dissent from time to time, modeled strong leadership, and represented the better angels of the military. He spoke critically of bad things that deserved criticism; he called balls and strikes as he saw them. About how many politicians can you say that?
But for a brake to bring a car or a train to a halt, the lever or pedal has to be held in place, and the umpire has to grunt. All Colin Powell knew to do was watch disaster pass him by.
I knew I didnt have any choice, Powell said to journalist Robert Draper, of his 2003 U.N. speech. What choice did I have? Hes the president.