In a stunningly oblivious moment earlier this week, former secretary of state and retired four-star U.S. Army General Colin Powell criticized Republicans for assisting the president and covering up his mistakes, and contrasted their behavior with how officials acted in his day.
Powell knows what happens when people compromise themselves in the service of power: in the run up to the Iraq war, he was prevailed upon to abandon his principles and make the case for war, even though he thought it was a mistake.
In an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Powell criticized officials in the Trump administration. He cited the infamous “Sharpiegate” as an example, where federal agencies assisted after Trump claimed that a hurricane was headed for Alabama.
“I see things happening that are hard to understand,” said Powell. “A couple weeks ago the president put a circle around southeast Alabama, saying it’s going to get hit by a hurricane. He put it on top of the meteorological prediction. In my time, one of us would have gone to the president and said, ‘Mr. President, you screwed up, so we’ve got to fix it and we’ll put out a correction.’”
“You know what they did this time?” Powell continued. “They ordered the Commerce Department to go out and backup whatever the president missaid. This is not the way the country’s supposed to run, and Congress is one of the institutions that should be doing something about this.”
If we accept the idea that in Powell’s day officials didn’t massage facts, or outright lie, in order to serve a president’s objectives, how do we explain Powell’s speech before the United Nations?
Powell knew a war with Iraq was a bad idea, and he frequently clashed with Vice President Dick Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld over the issue. Yet somehow, the four-star general was prevailed upon to betray his own doctrine, set aside his misgivings, and appear on the world stage to make the case for war.
Once thought of as a potential GOP presidential candidate, Powell tarnished his distinguished reputation when he addressed a plenary session of the United Nations Security Council on February 5, 2003. Because of his apolitical gravitas and stellar career as a general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when he addressed the world and said that Iraq had mobile biological-warfare labs and that there was a “sinister nexus” between Iraq and al-Qaeda terrorists, Americans believed him.
Powell said, “There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.”
“My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources,” he told the U.N. “These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”
Yet Powell’s own intelligence staff, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, prepared two memos commenting on drafts of the presentation that cast doubts on whether the Iraqis were, in fact, covertly producing nuclear weapons.
Even worse, in order to make the case for war stronger, Powell presented information that he’d embellished, if not falsified, for effect, according to reporting in Bob Woodward ‘s 2004 book Plan of Attack. When Powell used an intercept of a conversation between Iraqi army officers about the U.N. inspections, his translation from Iraqi to English went “substantially further” and cast the conversation in the most negative light possible. To seal the deal, Woodward wrote, Powell also added words that were not in the intercept.
“Powell took evidence of the Iraqis doing what they were supposed to do — i.e., searching their gigantic ammunition dumps to make sure they weren’t accidentally holding onto banned chemical weapons — and doctored it to make it look as if Iraq were hiding banned weapons,” reported The Intercept in 2018.
Powell’s presentation also omitted extremely relevant information, like that Saddam Hussein had actually destroyed its chemical weapons.
There was “no doubt in my mind” that Saddam was acquiring components to enable the production of nuclear weapons, he said in his speech.
Except there was doubt in Powell’s mind.
Powell’s chief of staff Larry Wilkerson said that Powell had said privately, “I wonder how we’ll all feel if we put half a million troops in Iraq and march from one end of the country to the other and find nothing.”
That’s exactly what happened: we invaded and no WMDs were located. Powell has always maintained that he was unaware that the intelligence estimates he used in the speech were wrong. He’s called his UN presentation “a blot, a failure” that “will always be attached to me.”
“I am mad mostly at myself for not having smelled the problem. My instincts failed me,” he wrote in his book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership.
In a chapter of the book titled “Tell Me What You Know,” Powell writes that no intelligence officials had the “courage” to warn him that the information he was using about Iraq in the buildup to the war was wrong.
“There is nothing worse than a leader believing he has accurate information when folks who know he doesn’t don’t tell him that he doesn’t,” Powell writes. “Why did no one stand up and speak out during the intense hours we worked on the speech? Some of these same analysts later wrote books claiming they were shocked that I have relied on such deeply flawed evidence.”
That’s not what the intelligence bureau says. Greg Thielmann, head of the Office of Strategic, Proliferation, and Military Issues in the INR until September 2002, completely contradicts Powell’s account. Theilmann told CBS News that the secretary of state took intelligence information and turned it on its head in order to “build the strongest possible case for arguing that there was no alternative to the use of military force.”
And why did Powell do this? “I can only assume that he was doing it to loyally support the president of the United States,” said Thielmann.
In other words, Powell deceived the world in order to appease the president. Sound familiar?
Like a good soldier, Powell took orders and followed them. He didn’t admit publicly that he had reservations about the war until years later, after 10 Republican senators had already defected on the issue.
Stanley Milgram, an American social psychologist who designed the classic test on obedience to authority, wrote in his book: “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”
Powell could have shown empathy for Republicans who cower before Trump. He could have shared his personal experience of how difficult it can be to have moral courage.
Instead he offered this criticism:
The Republican Party has got to get a grip on itself. Right now, Republican leaders and members of the Congress, in both the Senate and in the House, are holding back because they’re terrified of what will happen to any one of them if they speak out. Will they lose a primary? I don’t know why that’s such a disaster, but will they lose a primary? …[T]hey need to get a grip, and when they see things that are not right they need to say something about it….
Powell is right when he says that Trump officials and Republicans in Congress are weakening the country when they cave in to the president’s demands. Yet though it may seem like cravenness and obsequiousness to authority is worse today under Trump, it is a perennial human failing. When Powell says that in his day, officials confronted presidents instead of massaging their egos with falsehoods, he expects us to have very short memories.
Perhaps under Bush, officials were not asked to alter a meteorological prediction about the path of a hurricane in order to bolster one man’s ego. Fair enough. But Powell was asked to do something far worse: to make the specious case for sending thousands of men to their deaths in Iraq.
Barbara Boland is The American Conservative’s foreign policy and national security reporter. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.