Powell's legacy reflects the kinder face of US empire
Immediately after the early-morning announcement on October 18, 2021, of Colin L. Powell's death due to complications from Covid-19, friends and foes alike started inundating the airwaves with words of praise for the popular four-star general and his astounding public service.
Throughout his career in Washington, Powell served as the first Black national security advisor to the president, the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the first Black US secretary of state. His popularity at home and abroad, to a certain extent, stemmed basically from his personal charisma, seriousness of purpose, sense of fairness and unmatched ability to relate to his interlocutors regardless of their age, gender, social status or political affiliation. In short, he was widely perceived as a credible, serious and authentic public servant.
US President Joe Biden, who considered Powell a friend, praised him by stating that, "Colin embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat. He was committed to our nation’s strength and security above all. Having fought in wars, he understood better than anyone that military might alone was not enough to maintain our peace and prosperity."
The US president also told the nation that Powell "led with his personal commitment to the democratic values that make our country strong. Time and again, he put country before self, before the party, before all else - in uniform and out - and it earned him the universal respect of the American people."
"The trap that caught Powell unprepared, despite his military discipline and political savvy, was the Iraq war in 2003"
Powell's broad popularity is clearly undeniable; however, it is not universal by any means. His "hybrid" career as a warrior and diplomat gave him many unique opportunities and propelled him to the highest ranks of the top military and political decision-making elite in Washington. The combination was literally a minefield that proved quite often difficult to navigate even for a skilled survivor like Powell.
As Theodore R. Johnson, a retired Black Navy commander, wrote in the New York Times:
"The trajectory of Mr Powell's public life – broadly characterised by the seeming paradoxes of being Black and Republican, soldier and diplomat – holds a particular message for a nation whose democracy is increasingly in peril. His achievements were historic, but there is a warning about how institutions can co-opt exemplary citizens for their interests, the damaging effects of prizing partisan loyalty over principle, and the dangers associated with racializing issues for political experience."
The trap that caught Powell unprepared, despite his military discipline and political savvy, was the Iraq war in 2003. His acceptance to appear before the United Nations Security Council on behalf of the Bush Administration to convince the world community about Iraq's alleged possession of a substantial cache of weapons of mass destruction was surprising. That infamous picture of Powell holding up ostensibly a vial of anthrax as he addressed the UNSC came back to haunt him personally and to damage his stellar career.
To his credit, Powell quickly realised his shameful display of phoney evidence aimed at misleading world public opinion. He was honest enough to publicly admit that the painful episode became "a blot on my record."
The tragic aspect of Powell's UNSC blunder is the rationale for his choice by the White House to perform that task. It is quite apparent, in retrospect, that the Bush Administration chose Powell to carry out that risky mission precisely because of his widely acknowledged character, credibility and integrity.
The choice reveals the Machiavellian nature of Washington's modus operandi where one’s career, as stellar as it might have been, is readily sacrificed for short-term ideological gains.
In other words, the sincerity and popularity Powell earned throughout his career led him to contribute to what evolved as the ultimate stain on his career record.
For me as a teenager, Colin Powell represented black excellence in public service.— Karen Attiah (@KarenAttiah) October 18, 2021
But his selling of "evidence" of WMD's in Iraq and the decisions to invade was my first awakening to American imperialism and my introduction to the word "hegemony."
On a personal level, I had the opportunity to interact with Colin Powell on several occasions in his capacity as national security advisor to President Ronald Reagan and later as secretary of state.
The "general," as he preferred to be addressed, was always very engaging, well informed, and listened very attentively to his guests, a rather rare quality among high-ranking officials in Washington DC. In meeting with him, one always gets the impression that he is taking you seriously and giving you his total attention.
I remember quite well a serious exchange with him regarding the need for the Reagan Administration to initiate direct dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and to explore the notion of recognizing the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.
Powell was always very well briefed about the issue and spoke frankly and assertively about forthcoming change in policy regarding this matter. He specifically stated in the meeting that he had no problem with the Palestinians determining their own future, which prompted one of his nervous deputies in the room to emphasise that this was not official US policy yet!
"Despite the serious blot attached to his career regarding Iraq, Powell leaves the United States with a remarkable legacy worth pondering at this critical period in its history"
Having followed this issue carefully through my affiliation at the time with the National Association of Arab Americans, I felt that Powell played a key role in initiating the substantive US dialogue with the PLO in Tunisia that President Ronald Reagan and his Secretary of State George Shultz announced in mid-December 1988. This rather fresh approach by Powell did continue later when he became the 65th US Secretary of State, as he continued to deal fairly and seriously with the Palestine question. Palestinian leaders confirmed to the author the same impression of Secretary Powell during his visits to Ramallah in 2001 and 2004.
Despite the serious blot attached to his career regarding Iraq, Powell leaves the United States with a remarkable legacy worth pondering at this critical period in its history.
As a military officer, widely perceived as one of the most respected Americans in uniform, Powell did not get intoxicated, like several of his colleagues at the Pentagon, with the rush to use military force.
His commitment to expeditionary diplomacy was evident in his famous advice to President George W. Bush regarding Iraq, "You break it, you’re going to own it," proved to be right on the mark and quite enduring whether in Iraq or more recently in Afghanistan.
Khalil E. Jahshan is the Executive Director of Arab Center Washington DC.
Follow him on Twitter: @khalilejahshan
This article was republished with kind permission from ACW.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.