Thursday March 30, 2023

A good soldier

October 28, 2021

On October 18, retired American general Colin Powell passed away due to complications from Covid. He was 84 years old and had been treated for blood cancer which had compromised his immune system. Powell was one of the most respected figures from recent American military and diplomatic history.

Over the years, Colin Powell served as national security adviser to former president Ronald Reagan and as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the highest military rank in the US, under former president George H W Bush.

In 2001, then president George W Bush appointed him as the secretary of state, making him the country’s highest diplomat.

Colin Powell’s humble beginnings as the son of working-class Jamaican immigrants in New York and his rise as a Black man to some of the highest offices in the US government evoked much admiration. He achieved many firsts during his career and was deeply admired across the political spectrum. His rise to positions of stature also reinforced for many Americans the possibilities this country represents even for minorities. His is a true American success story.

Colin Powell was considered a potential candidate for the office of the vice president or even the presidency itself. While he had remained nonpartisan during his years of service, following retirement in 1995 he declared himself to be a Republican. In 1996, he considered running for president under the Republican Party banner but decided against it.

Upon his death, Colin Powell has received much well-deserved adoration for all he achieved in his life and for his service to the country. But just like many American success stories, Colin’s story has another side as well.

During Powell’s tenure in senior defence roles from 1987 to 1993, he influenced the US government’s approach to many foreign crises. He oversaw the successful execution of the first Gulf War, in 1991 for which he was admired. But his opposition to US action in the Bosnian civil war of the early 1990s prolonged the conflict, leading to countless deaths and large-scale destruction of which civilians were the primary victims.

The so-called ‘Powell Doctrine’ asserted that the US would enter a military conflict only if it was willing to commit massive force and only if major US interests were clearly at stake. His posture likely kept George H W Bush and his successor Clinton from intervening in the Bosnian conflict. In the absence of US action, the civil war dragged on for three years. Colin Powell was so burdened with the bad experience of Vietnam, where he had served two tours of duty, that he did not grasp the very different circumstances the world faced in Bosnia, an ethnic conflict where mostly one side was openly massacring largely unarmed civilians in the heart of Europe.

While in the US Colin Powell’s storied career has received adulation, in most parts of the world he is often remembered as the US leader who made the case before the UN Security Council in March 2003 for the US-led invasion of Iraq. As many had suspected, the case was based on faulty or manufactured intelligence. That a man of Colin Powell’s intellect and stature did not see the deep flaws in the reasoning and in the manipulation of intelligence by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and others is disturbing. Powell himself has admitted this to be a ‘blot’ on his record.

On March 31, 2003, 10 days into the Iraq war, in a speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a lobbying group, Powell said “we gave diplomacy every chance”. He went on to say, “we will remove the shadow of Saddam’s terrible weapons from Israel and the Middle East.”

At the time of the US-led invasion, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were close to completing work in Iraq, looking for the presence of weapons of mass destruction. They were pleading for just a few more days to complete their work. Powell must have been aware of this, and yet he asserted “we gave diplomacy every chance.” This could be considered just an error in judgement except that the lives of millions were upended, even destroyed.

At a time when he needed to be a wise, principled leader, he chose to be a good soldier, and in doing so, he let his country down.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Washington, DC. Website:

Twitter: @SQS12