The former US secretary of state was instrumental in paving the way for the invasion of Iraq on spurious intelligence in his infamous speech at the UN in 2003.
Former US secretary of state Colin Powell, who paved the way for the 2003 Iraq War under President George W Bush, died today at the age of 84 from complications from Covid-19.
Born in Harlem of Jamaican heritage, Powell was the nation’s first Black national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state.
A fixture in American politics for decades, he was a four-star army general whose career began in Vietnam and later spanned several Republican administrations, even toying with a presidential run in 1995 before deciding against it.
A tendency towards careerism – what admirers chalked up as “being a good soldier” – was an attribute that would serve him well during his ascent up the US national security bureaucracy.
In Vietnam, Powell was part of the army division that ended up being responsible for the My Lai massacre. While he talked about it in his best-selling memoir, “My American Journey,” he absolved himself by recounting he was unaware of the scale of the institutional coverup.
Never one to buck the system, Powell was the consummate inside man; someone who thought whatever compromises he made were worth it because it would offer him a chance to do the right thing.
Whether that meant participating in Ronald Regan’s Iran-Contra operation, or being an architect behind the invasion of Panama in 1989 and the Persian Gulf war in 1991 under George H W Bush, the ostensibly prudent Powell was, at the end of the day, a yes man.
And there was no better example of that on display than his role in justifying the war in Iraq.
Believed to be a moderating influence in the Bush administration and skeptical of the idea of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, Powell still went out to make the case. Because he was held in such high esteem by members of both parties, the fact that he so forcefully made the case solidified bipartisan support for the war.
Coupled with his infamous UN speech on Iraq harbouring Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), the image of Powell holding up a vial of an alleged chemical agent is iconic from that era (along with artistic renderings of what the alleged biological labs would look like), was a display of propaganda the self-advertised moderate found hard to scrub from his legacy.US Secretary of State Colin Powell holds up a vial that he said could contain anthrax as he presents evidence of Iraq’s alleged weapons programs to the United Nations Security Council, Feb. 5, 2003. (Ray Stubblebine / Reuters)
The ‘grand game of Powellian deception’
On February 5, 2003, Powell gave testimony to the UN Security Council in which he claimed that the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s government was hiding a secret chemical weapons program from the international community and supporting terrorism following the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
His address was an effort to provide delegates “with additional information…about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction as well as Iraq’s involvement in terrorism, which is also the subject of resolution 1411 and other earlier resolutions.”
The proof? “My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid evidence.”
Did Iraq revive their nuclear weapons program? “There is no doubt in my mind,” he concluded.
Privately, however, he displayed less certainty. “I wonder how we’ll all feel if we put half a million troops in Iraq and march from one end of the country to the other and find nothing,” he told his chief of staff Larry Wilkerson at the time.
It was all part of a “grand game of Powellian deception,” wrote Binoy Kampmark in Counterpunch.
One of the clues Powell furnished was drawn from an intercepted conversation about UN inspections between Iraqi army officers that he turned on its head: “Clean out all of the areas…Make sure there is nothing there.” None of which was in the intercept.
As Jon Schwarz wrote in The Intercept: “Powell took evidence of the Iraqis doing what they were supposed to do – i.e., searching their gigantic ammunition dumps to make sure they weren’t accidently holding onto banned chemical weapons – and doctored it to make it look as if Iraq were hiding banned weapons.”
“Clearly Powell’s loyalty to Bush extended to being willing to deceive the world: the United Nations, Americans, and the coalition troops about to be sent to kill and die in Iraq,” Schwarz said.
“He’s never been held accountable for his actions, and it’s extremely unlikely he ever will be.”
Despite the eventual hand wringing by acknowledging how the UN speech was a “blot” on his record and a “great intelligence failure,” Powell displayed no sincere remorse over the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of US soldiers. He remained insistent the war was a just one
Wilkerson said Powell’s UN testimony was significant for both its dishonesty and that Powell’s “gravitas” was a crucial “part of the two-year-long effort by the Bush administration to get Americans on the war wagon.”
“That effort led to a war of choice with Iraq, one that resulted in catastrophic losses for the region and the United States-led coalition, and that destabilized the entire Middle East,” wrote Wilkerson in 2018.
Nor was the UN speech the first example of Powell’s acquiescence. Reports revealedhow timid he was in speaking against the Bush administration’s imprisonment and torture policy, despite knowing the legal risks, in another instance where Powell seemed to put career before principles.
Despite falling out with the administration and leaving at the end of Bush’s first term, Powell continued to be held in high regard as a statesman within Beltway circles. His credibility with the American public, however, had been sacrificed at the altar of Iraq.
Following the Bush era, Powell endorsed President Barack Obama in 2008 and voted for the Democratic ticket ever since. He was an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump and the direction the Republican party took under Trump’s presidency.
While publicly walking back some of his blunders on Iraq, Powell embarked on a path of restoration that ultimately assuaged any greater responsibility.
“Iraq was not his debacle but that of others,” argued Kampmark. “He has spent years cultivating his apologias, showing up his peers as imbeciles and he, a warning filled sage of reason.”
It cannot be denied that Powell left an indelible mark on the history of US foreign policy. He, along with Dick Cheney, were two of the chief designers behind the strategic legacies of the Regan and Bush Sr eras. At the core of the new military doctrine was that the US should avoid the kind of protracted engagement that could become politically costly, as it did in Vietnam.
But for someone who established what came to be known as the ‘Powell Doctrine’ – don’t get into a war you don’t know how to get out of – it is somewhat tragically ironic that Powell failed to heed that lesson himself in 2003.