In his new book It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership, Colin Powell says there was no debate in the Bush administration about whether going to war in Iraq was a good idea. But before Powell starts to rewrite that chapter in history — or at least put his own spin on it — he cannot let himself off the hook for the Iraq war, or the case he made to go forward with it.
In February 2003, Powell gave a speech before the United Nations, when he laid out the case that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. It was a claim that turned out to be unsubstantiated, a blatant distortion and an outright lie.
In the book, which will be released later this month, the retired general and nation’s former top diplomat under Bush painted the war as a done deal. “By then, the president did not think war could be avoided,” Powell writes. “He had crossed the line in his own mind, even though the NSC [National Security Council] had never met — and never would meet — to discuss the decision.”
Whether President Bush’s mind was made up is irrelevant, as we know now that Bush had it in for Saddam from day one after the 9/11 attacks. What is important is that Powell apparently did nothing to change the president’s mind. In fact, the former Secretary of State was complicit in everything that happened in that expensive and useless war, which cost America a great deal in blood and treasure. With a price tag of $3 trillion, 4,487 U.S. soldiers dead, over 100,000 Iraqis killed, and up to 500,000 U.S. service-members physically and psychologically damaged, the war will cost the country dearly for years to come.
If some politicians say they want to follow the advice of the generals on the ground, Powell was a “good soldier” who followed orders, perhaps even to the detriment of his long term reputation.
As an assistant to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in the Reagan years, Powell aided in the 1983 U.S. invasion of the Caribbean nation of Grenada. The UN condemned the invasion as a “flagrant violation of international law and of the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of that State.” He also assisted in the 1986 bombing of Libya, which reportedly hit densely populated suburbs of Tripoli and killed at least 100 people, including the adopted baby daughter of then-Libyan leader Gen. Muammar Gadhafi.
Salon reported that in 1987, Powell gave questionable testimony about Weinberger’s role in the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the Reagan administration secretly traded arms with Iran. Iran-Contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh said Powell’s testimony “hardly constituted full disclosure,” had been “designed to protect Weinberger,” and characterized it as “at least misleading.” Weinberger, who assisted in the sale of missiles to Iran, was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice, and was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush.
As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell led the 1989 invasion of Panama, which was known as Operation Just Cause. The 27,000-troop invasion — which removed drug trafficker Manuel Noriega from power — reportedly left hundreds dead and thousands injured and homeless. The Organization of American States and the UN condemned the invasion as a violation of international law.
And in 2004, then-Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was removed from power in a coup that was pushed by various Bush officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Powell, who was Secretary of State. Powell stated that the U.S. would not send in U.S. troops to protect the democratically-elected Haitian leader.
Aristide claimed he was kidnapped by U.S. troops, forced to resign and taken out of the country. “He was not kidnapped,” Powell responded. “We did not force him onto the airplane. He went onto the airplane willingly, and that’s the truth.”
Others before Powell, when faced with ethically or morally challenged administrations, chose to resign from their positions rather than further participate in questionable decision making. For example, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus resigned from the Justice Department rather than obey Nixon’s order to fire a special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal.
Meanwhile, Colin Powell remained a good soldier, always obeying orders. And that can also lead to some bad results. Powell seems like a decent person who has taken some admirable positions, including his support for civil rights and bucking the GOP to support Obama for president. Yet, his failure to stand up for himself and the country in the buildup to the Iraq war could leave a permanent blemish on his reputation.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove