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Colin Powell's Lost Soul

November 16, 2004

With his resignation today, Secretary of State Colin Powell is being warmly remembered as a voice of moderation within an increasingly immoderate Bush administration, a calm and subtle diplomat seeking to build consensus and coalition. Compared to the arrogance of Rumsfeld, the incompetence of Rice and the hubris of the President, these tributes seem fitting.
On the merits, however, I believe history will be much less kind to Powell, a man who unquestionably dedicated his life to the service of the American people. His two contributions to posterity, authoring the Powell Doctrine and selling Bush's Iraq war to the global community, will blight his reputation. The first was understable for a cautious Chairman of the Joint Chiefs; the latter seems inexplicable to this day.
The Powell Doctrine sought to clarify when and how the United States should go to war. The product of Powell's Vietnam experience, the Powell Doctrine stated that:
Military action should be used only as a last resort and only if there is a clear risk to national security by the intended target; the force, when used, should be overwhelming and disproportionate to the force used by the enemy; there must be strong support for the campaign by the general public; and there must be a clear exit strategy from the conflict in which the military is engaged.
Powell, who as head of the JCS opposed the first Gulf War, created not a cogent articulation of national interest, but instead a formula for inaction. By its dictates, the Powell Doctrine would have foreclosed American action in Bosnia or Kosovo, and would have let stand the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur. Powell may have been the only brake on an out of control Bush administration and the unilateralism of neo-conservatives like Wolfowitz et al, but the limits of his vision cast a shadow over the Clinton administration before him. As then U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright told him regarding the crisis in the Balkans, "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?"
It is his role as the salesman for the Iraq campaign, however, that will truly tarnish the Powell legacy. Overwhelmed by Cheney and Rumsfeld, Powell was still able to in the fall of 2002 to push the administration to go to the U.N. to seek backing - and legitimacy - for its preventive war against Saddam. But it was Powell who closed the deal in his presentation to the United Nations in February 2003, offering a carefully packaged laundry list of unsubstantiated claims regarding the WMD program of Iraq. As Bush hagiographer Bob Woodward notes, Powell knew better and knew better at the time. Despite his warnings of the "Pottery Barn" rule, Powell carried water for the Bush adminstration, presenting the face of reason as no one else could.
Ultimately, the question is why. Why did this "loyal soldier" sell his soul to George W. Bush? What did he get for his Faustian bargain? Resigning in the fall of 2002, during a time of war, would no doubt have been difficult. It would also have been a true act of patriotism.
And that is why we'll be reading more about the shame of Colin Powell in places like the American Prospect, Slate, and Foreign Policy. Future generations of Americans will not mournfully ask themselves of Colin Powell, "what might have been." Instead, they will only shake their heads about what was.

4 comments on “Colin Powell's Lost Soul”

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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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