Colin Powell: An American Life

Colin Powell: An American Life

Secretary of State Colin Powell listens during a speech by President George W. Bush at the State Department in 2002.
Secretary of State Colin Powell listens during a speech by President George W. Bush at the State Department in 2002. Brooks Kraft/Corbis/Getty Images

Colin Powell’s extraordinary career as a soldier-statesman provides a model for how to live one’s life in the public arena at a time few such models can be found.

October 18, 2021 5:10 pm (EST)

Secretary of State Colin Powell listens during a speech by President George W. Bush at the State Department in 2002.
Secretary of State Colin Powell listens during a speech by President George W. Bush at the State Department in 2002. Brooks Kraft/Corbis/Getty Images
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How to think about Colin Powell, who passed away this week at the age of eighty-four? He was many things: a quintessential American; a son of immigrants; an inveterate optimist who advised not to “take counsel of your fears or naysayers” and that “perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”

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Full disclosure: I worked with Powell at the Defense Department in the Jimmy Carter administration and again when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and I was on the National Security Council staff under President George H.W. Bush. I worked for him when he was secretary of state and I headed up his policy planning staff under President George W. Bush. He was a good friend for more than four decades.

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Powell believed that public service is an honorable calling. He should be viewed as a soldier-statesman in the tradition of Dwight D. Eisenhower and George C. Marshall. Like the two of them, he was a man of moderation and pragmatism, not ideology. He moved seamlessly between the civilian and military worlds and between the worlds of politicians and career civil servants. He understood that military force and diplomacy were not opposites but rather complementary national security tools.

All of us are framed by our experiences early on in life, and Powell was no exception. For him, it was the Vietnam War, where he served two tours as a young army officer. He became acutely aware of how ill-advised policy and poor leadership can cost lives and wreck institutions. Powell came away wary of global abstractions cooked up in Washington that can have costly implications when implemented in localities halfway around the world. Instead, as is the case with most people with direct military experience, war for Powell was real, often all too real.

Powell’s experience in Vietnam profoundly influenced his thinking about the use of military force. The doctrine that bears his name sets criteria to be considered before force is used. Powell’s doctrine is a plea to use the military carefully, if at all. Like the philosophers who promulgated just war theory, Powell saw war as a last resort. Articulated in the aftermath of the battlefield-oriented Gulf War and later, amid debates over less clear-cut, less traditional interventions in the Balkans and Somalia, Powell’s doctrine argued that questions be asked before military force be employed. Are there important, clear-cut objectives that military force could best accomplish? Would the likely benefits exceed the expected costs? How would the initial use of military force change the situation and what then? It was this last question that triggered his reference to the so-called Pottery Barn rule: if you break it, you own it. Powell understood that the measure of an intervention is not how it begins but how it ends.

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Powell was particularly uneasy with proposals that called for limited uses of force to signal to adversaries rather than significant uses of force to overwhelm them. Such questions led Powell, who was at the time the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to embrace the 1990–91 Gulf War only after the first President Bush gave him the troops and equipment he asked for. The same set of questions led Powell to advise against going on to Baghdad at the time and to be wary of going to war against Iraq a decade later when the issue resurfaced under the second President Bush.

Did Powell always get it right? Of course not. The biggest blemish on his record (as he was the first to acknowledge) was his appearance as secretary of state before the United Nations Security Council in February 2003 making the case for the Iraq War. As we now know, Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD). What Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, was hiding was not nuclear or biological weapons but the fact that he had none.

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None of us in the George W. Bush administration, including Powell, knew that at the time. What critics ignore is that Powell believed what he said, that Saddam was in possession of WMD. This did not necessarily mean Powell favored going to war, but that he recognized the threat as real and the option of war as reasonable, even if it was not his preference.

What critics also tend to ignore is the process that led up to Powell’s UN statement. Given a script just days before that Vice President Dick Cheney’s office had prepared, Powell insisted that the intelligence community scrutinize and validate every word. Ultimately, more than 90 percent of the initial draft was changed or eliminated. Powell made clear that he would only deliver remarks informed by what the government knew and, given the inherent uncertainty of much intelligence, what it judged to be correct. His statement would not be driven by policy preferences. We know now the result was inaccurate in part, but what is critical in assessing the man is that what was said constituted an honest representation of what he and others thought to be reality. One can be wrong without intent.

After leaving government, Powell spoke out against the illiberal drift that had come to characterize the Republican Party he had so long been a part of. He remained a man of moderation and character to the end, and he gave much of his time to seeing that others have the chance to live the American dream. He devoted himself to America’s Promise, a charitable organization established to assist young people, and to the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York, where Powell did his undergraduate work and was introduced to the military via the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. They were the final stops on an extraordinary American journey, one that provides a model for how to live one’s life in the public arena at a time few such models can be found.

Richard Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations, where Colin Powell was a member for thirty-five years and served on its board from 2006 to 2016.

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