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The Failed Courage of Colin Powell


One of the great mysteries of the first Bush term revolves around Colin Powell. His views with respect to Iraq – both on the whether and the how – were always plain enough. They reflected straight-line continuity with the principles he articulated with mainstream Republican foreign policy experts like Brent Scowcroft during the term of Bush’s father. He was extremely suspicious of Saddam. He favored aggressive action against Saddam. But he considered building an international coalition essential to that end, and he embraced the view that if a military solution was to be taken, then the use of overwhelming force was essential – this approach would assure the lightest possible casualties for the U.S. and its allies and would produce a quick and convincing victory. Indeed, this perspective is so closely aligned with Colin Powell that it is known as the “Powell Doctrine.”
What transpired in Iraq reflects the triumph of Rumsfeld and Cheney over Powell. Indeed, they were committed to a minimalist approach – the view that the entire operation would be a cakewalk. And they disdained the idea of alliance building as nonsense and an encumbrance.

In retrospect, the results obtained in Iraq are proof that the Powell Doctrine was right and that Rumsfeld and Cheney were fools. Which brings us back to the question: Why didn’t Colin Powell stick up for the Powell Doctrine?

In today’s Times (London), Sarah Baxter offers a fascinating report based on Powell’s remarks out at the Aspen Institute in Colorado. Powell reports that he tried desperately to avert the war, but Bush wouldn’t listen to him:

Colin Powell has revealed that he spent 2½ hours vainly trying to persuade President George W Bush not to invade Iraq and believes today’s conflict cannot be resolved by US forces. “I tried to avoid this war,” Powell said at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado. “I took him through the consequences of going into an Arab country and becoming the occupiers.” Powell has become increasingly outspoken about the level of violence in Iraq, which he believes is in a state of civil war. “The civil war will ultimately be resolved by a test of arms,” he said. “It’s not going to be pretty to watch, but I don’t know any way to avoid it. It is happening now.”

He added: “It is not a civil war that can be put down or solved by the armed forces of the United States.” All the military could do, Powell suggested, was put “a heavier lid on this pot of boiling sectarian stew”.

I believe Powell’s account. The surprising thing is that he’s been so long in taking it to the public. Indeed, the still more surprising thing is that given this difference, and his sharp conflict with Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld on the issue of torture and the abuse of detainees, he did not resign. Surely that would have been the honorable thing to do. It would have laid down a marker for posterity. But more importantly, it would have put the public on notice of the strange doings behind the scenes in the White House.

So why today? Every day’s headlines bring news of more Republican leaders breaking with President Bush over Iraq – Indiana’s Richard Lugar last week, New Mexico’s Pete Domenici this week, and nose counters saying that at least a dozen GOP senators have or will shortly break with the White House on Iraq policy. All of this makes it “safe” for Powell.

Colin Powell the secretary of state seems much like Colin Powell the soldier. He took his orders and followed them. But history will question why he did not do more. He was in a civilian role, one where his duties ran both to the president and to the nation. Discipline and fidelity to the commander are military values. But so, in the end, is moral courage – the resolve to stand your ground on something of vital importance when you see and know a mistake is being made. And this is where Powell’s conduct has let us all down.

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