Over the course of his long and illustrious military and political career, Colin Powell made history with several firsts. A respected soldier and officer with a keen understanding of how to navigate bureaucracy, Powell rose to become one of America’s best-known and most popular generals. The general, who died of COVID-19 related complications on October 18, served as the first person of color as the national security adviser during the Reagan administration, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and the secretary of state under the George W. Bush administration.
Powell’s star rose during the First Gulf War in 1991 when the media-savvy general became a household name. He was credited with leading the war effort but Powell’s outlook was largely shaped by his Vietnam experience. It was in Vietnam that Powell saw first-hand how a US military intervention had gone wrong. In the years that followed, Powell came to be associated with a set of conditions under which the US should intervene militarily: a clear political objective where American national interest is at stake, the use of overwhelming force, and a clear exit strategy. This came to be known as the Powell Doctrine. The First Gulf War seemed to have been the perfect case of how the doctrine should be implemented.
When the war broke out in Bosnia in 1992, many citizens of the newly independent country were hoping for and projecting their hopes onto American military support and intervention. Little did they know that the Powell Doctrine and the general himself stood in the way. For Powell, the war in Bosnia did not meet the requirements set forth in the eponymous doctrine. President George H.W. Bush was reluctant to intervene in an election year that was 1992. Newly elected Bill Clinton, who had not served in Vietnam, deferred to Powell whose term as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff continued into the first year of the Clinton administration. The result was that a serious American military intervention in Bosnia was on the back burner in the first two years of the war.
General Powell was highly thought of as a potential presidential candidate for the 1996 elections but he opted to stay out of electoral politics. Following a hiatus in public service in the late 1990s, Powell was nominated and confirmed as secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration. Of his entire career, his tenure at the State Department became the most controversial.
In the US, Powell will be remembered as a highly decorated and respected soldier. However, outside the US, he will be most remembered for his speech at the UN Security Council in 2003 where he presented evidence --unsubstantiated as it turned out -- of the Iraqi program for weapons of mass destruction.
Within the Bush administration, the invasion of Iraq was primarily advocated by then-Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz along with the neoconservatives in the administration. Books and memoirs published over the past years have shown that Powell was outmaneuvered in agenda-setting and bureaucratic infighting within the administration.
His decision to publicly make the case for a regime change in Iraq made him the public face of the war effort across the globe. Powell’s mistake was that he made the Bush administration’s hawks’ bidding while being marginalized in internal decision-making. By failing to scrutinize the evidence and stand up to the Cheney-Rumsfeld pro-war faction within the administration, Powell’s judgment and reputation suffered irreparably along with countless Iraqi lives.
One of the many ironies of his tenure as the secretary of state was that the general who set strict conditions for American military interventions abroad failed to abide by his own doctrine in 2003.
By Dr. Hamza Karcic
- The author is an associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Sarajevo.
*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.