When viewed through a lens solely reflective of the lead up to war in Iraq, it is all too easy to ignore the complete and successful career of General Colin Powell as an effective bipartisan statesman that has been honored and admired across the nation and the globe. While many view the sequence of events surrounding the United Nations testimony as a dark mark on Powell’s record, nowhere in the debate over war did Powell give up on his goal of constantly working for pragmatic negotiated situations. Yes, it can be difficult to be an effective diplomat if the administration fails to support its diplomats, but Powell embodies persuasive power based on the years of international service that he had completed and the relationships he had built throughout international politics.
Despite the leadership within the Department of Defense at the beginning of President George W. Bush’s first term, Powell’s years of service as national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the culmination of decades of service drew him strong support within the core of the Defense Department. Furthermore, the acceptance of the “Powell Doctrine” in all aspects of international planning proves the respect that is presented to a statesman of his stature-the doctrine is known for contextualizing a military situation based on the diplomatic and logistical pressures of a given situation.
In the same timeline with the growth and acceptance of the Powell Doctrine, 1997 saw Powell’s critically important role in the creation of the America’s Promise organization. This group-a cooperative effort between presidents, governors, mayors and local leaders-seeks to improve the socioeconomic well-being of youths who have found themselves in difficult situations so that they will have a future impact on national and world events.
In addition to the impact of Powell’s role in contextualizing military action and chairing non-governmental organizations, he was also a successful and diplomatic secretary of state when viewed outside the prism of media reporting. In the days immediately following September 11, 2001, Powell was able to directly bring about cohesion of our Central and South American allies and visits to the Middle East provided Powell with the visibility of a master statesman, along with key expertise on the matters of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This would eventually prove critical toward U.S. support for British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Roadmap for Peace in the Middle East.
As for the speech to the United Nations, Powell’s ability to convince the White House that unilateral action would be viewed unfavorably by other states, the failure following his speech at the UN should be seen as a failure of administration officials surrounding him and not Powell’s diplomacy itself. It would be ridiculous to blame the overall administration failings on Powell, and to do so would simply buy into the attempted making Powell into a scapegoat by those within various branches of government and ignore his role as an important moderate voice.
Later campaign for enormous intelligence community reforms and caution toward the nuclear situation in Iran, Powell represented an essence of soft power within the administration that has since been lost. This power of non-violent international persuasion and influence was critical toward his actions as secretary of state. One blemish on his record should not destroy Powell’s reputation as a moderate and pragmatic statesman, and other government officials and international leaders recognize this-the personal relationships that Powell was able to build internationally should be seen as the real indicators of his success, as well as his success in providing things such increased aid for African concerns-Iraq should not be the only part of his record that we view.
Former United States Secretary of State and four-star General Colin Powell was a successful and influential military man. During his 35 years of service, he acquired a myriad of command and staff positions, securing 11 honorable military declarations. In 2001, newly elected President George W. Bush appointed Powell to his position in the State Department, but did this highly acclaimed military general ever successfully transition into as successful statesman? I would argue no; during Powell’s time as secretary of state he was ineffective, marginalized and, despite noble ideas, in the end he remained loyal to his president in times when respectful dissent would have proven a better option.
As the sole moderate voice in an administration packed with neo-conservative hardliners, Powell was a somewhat of a bureaucratic infighter, often at odds with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. During the series of situations that threw themselves at the Bush administration during Powell’s term, the United States needed a voice of reason amongst the otherwise irrational ideas floating around and, too often, prevailing. Occasionally his dissent paralyzed the administration on key decisions such as those regarding Iraq and North Korea, but despite frequent clashes with administration members-who were reportedly planning an Iraq invasion before September 11, 2001-Powell supported Bush in the end and presented his case to the United Nations Security Council. Evidence later discredited his testimony and U.S. forces discovered no weapons program. As was the case leading up to the Persian Gulf War, Powell was initially opposed to a forcible overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, preferring a continued policy of containment, yet eventually went along with the hardliners by whom he was surrounded. His one stipulation on offering his support for the Iraq War-involvement of the international community through U.N. approval-was eventually overtaken as the U.S. pursued war without international support.
Colin Powell never quite found his place in the neo-conservative-dominated Bush administration, nor did he quite make a full transition from general to statesman. Of course, Powell was no pacifist: He believed in U.S. power as much as the next administration member. The key continuing difference in his ideology lay in his belief that the American status as sole global superpower warrants responsibility and accountability, and is not an automatic go-ahead for forcible action. He saw complexity where the others saw simplicity, and his vision of leading wisely with domestic consensus, proved a point of weakness for him in the face of the administration. As a result of his military years, Powell preferred to follow orders, serving “at the pleasure of the president.” His ideas were noble, his leanings relatively moderate, but in the end, he lacked a fierce drive in the same direction as the others-this rendered him virtually powerless. Marginalized, the power he wielded in the 2003 Iraq war paled in comparison to that he held during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Powell’s reluctance to engage in direct diplomacy limited his effectiveness as well; he traveled less than any secretary of state in the past 30 years of the job. Despite these things, his military discipline kept him ever loyal to Bush. As Congressman Charles Rangel said of him, “Colin Powell is a military guy, and he doesn’t care who he works for, he just salutes.”
While some Americans were displeased at the loss of a moderate voice within Bush’s neo-conservative administration, I would argue that in the end Powell was an ineffective secretary of tate who loyally defended Bush’s lies. Powell was certainly not a bad man, he just gave his support to a poor administration and, in his absence, U.S. foreign policy will undergo no dramatic change.