On Sunday Colin Powell finally stopped being coy and came out for Barack Obama. The reaction was predictable. The right wing pundit class went apoplexic. There was an eruption of bile that was both ferocious and awe inspiring. In other places the response was a far different. The T.V. pundit class could scarcely stop oohing and ahing. It is time for a little perspective on Powell.
Colin Powell came out of the Bush Administration profoundly soiled. It was all about his performance at the U.N. as the face of the U.S. case against Iraq. That was essentially the last act of the prostitution of Colin Powell.
Before that final act Colin Powell was a well established figure. He was America’s hero. His life story was a confirmation of how the “system” works. Colin Powell played racial politics in a pitch perfect way. He was hard working, wicked smart, affable and a team player. In Shelby Steele’s archetype he was a bargainer. He was the type of black who let whites feel good about themselves. A go along to get along type and a consummate political animal he rose to the very top of the military hierarchy.
When Powell departed the military and joined the political fray both parties were hoping that he would join their team. Powell joined the Republicans. The G.O.P. was ecstatic. Powell was their “Big Tent” philosophy made flesh. Truth be told Powell was a good fit for the Republican Party of Bush Sr. He was personally conservative; all those years in the military had reinforced his button-down personality. His politics were also very conservative in a very literal way; he opposed any great changes in policy and preferred to tinker around the edges of the status quo. His famous “Powell Doctrine” of military involvement was a very restrained and very conservative document. Strict adherence to the Powell Doctrine by the U.S. would result in very few military incursions. Powell’s doctrine eschewed foreign policy adventurism. His crowning moment was the 1st Gulf War. That war was quick limited and in the short run successful.
Powell’s classic conservatism, one that he shared with G.W. Bush and the Eastern Establishment Republicans, is wrongly labeled “moderate” these days. This is many because movement conservatism, what was once more properly labeled reactionary conservatism has taken over the Republican Party. That movement’s guiding light was Ronald Regan but its ultimate enactors were George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Bush / Cheney came into power via a troika of Republican power bases. First was the Religious Right. The Second was the Free Market absolutists. Last and not least were the NeoCons. While Bush was the figurehead, it was Cheney that was the driving force of the Administration. Cheney knew exactly where he wanted the Administration to go and pushed relentlessly to get his notions enacted.
Very early on Powell got sidelined and outplayed by Cheney. Even before 9/11 Powell’s State Department was forced to go in directions that it did not want to go. Case in point; the abrogation of the ABM treaty. The Bushite wrecking of this treaty for the Strategic Defense Initiative had to upset Powell. First Powell had to know that the “Star Wars” missile defense system was not worth scraping the treaty over. Second Powell understood how scrapping the ABM treaty irritated the Russians no end. Finally Powell probably objected philosophically with the change due to its radical nature. But Powell was outplayed by Cheney and Condoleezza Rice and overruled by Bush. A smarter or prouder man would have left right there and then. Powell stayed on.
But it is after 9/11 that Powell really sold his soul. The major cash-out happened in the C.I.A torture discussions. For whatever reasons, Powell stayed all-in with the administration and participated not only in the decisions to torture but participated in the discussions of how to torture. Forget Powell resigning in protest over the decision to invade Iraq, Powell should have walked out the door as soon as Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney started talking about a policy of extraordinary rendition and enhanced interrogation. Powell knew that was kidnapping and torture. He also knew that it was a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the Geneva Accords, two hundred years of U.S. military tradition, and common decency. As a military man he knew that torture put our service members at grave risk and provided useless intelligence. But he defaulted to the very method that had catapulted him to such a prominence in the first place- go along to get along.
From there it was easy for Bush et al to convince Powell to deliver the Administrations “case” against Saddam to the U.N. Despite the protestations of his batsman Col Wilkerson, Powell did not really have a problem with presenting the distortions of Bush Administration to the wider world. It was not the lies that bothered Powell; it was the fact that the lies were so transparent. Powell was upset that his dance of the seven veils was turning out to be the dance of the small, moth-eaten handkerchief.
Powell knew that the intelligence he was given by Cheney and others was bad. He had plenty of experience with both good and bad intelligence products during his military career. Powell did not fact check the intelligence with his own State Department resources because he knew good and well that the “intelligence” he was reading would not survive the scrutiny. He dragged Tenant to the U.N. not only for world opinion but also to cover his number when the case for invasion inevitably came crashing down.
It is said that what was once tragedy repeats as farce. In any other nation Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama might play out as farce. In the U.S.A. it does not. In this nation there is no accountability for past malfeasance. It is argued that Powell’s support of Obama might be an act of penance for his U.N. speech. If it is, it is a rather small act of contrition for Powell’s participation in the Bush Administration. The torture policy Powell signed off on abused hundreds of innocents and accidentally killed more than a few. The war that he helped sell has killed hundreds of thousands of individuals and ruined our nation’s reputation for generations at least. For such sins in years past men were forced into exile or to become mendicant monks. Powell shows no signs of taking on orders or retreating to a solitary island.
If there is one silver lining in Powell’s appearance at Meet The Press it is his commentary after the endorsement. His unambiguous support of the right of conscience, that Muslims have every right to participate in the nations affairs was a shining moment. It still speaks volumes about the state of affairs that no Republican other than Powell was willing to state the obvious; that Muslims have fought and died for this country and that a Muslim boy or Muslim girl has every right to dream of and perhaps become the President of this Nation. In his comments both during and after his MTP appearance on this subject Powell showed a small flash of the man who the USA once admired. Unfortunately that man made a major error in backing both the candidacy of and Administration of George W. Bush