Colin Powell died on Monday at the age of 84. Born in New York City in 1937, he attended City College where he studied geology. Over the course of his high-ranking military and government career he formulated the Powell Doctrine and later became known for justifying the illegal Iraq War in 2003. In this interview, international relations scholar Richard Falk reflects on Powell’s life and the US reaction to his passing: including the relevance of identity politics, the question of moderation, his contribution to the horrors of Vietnam and Iraq, and US governmental hypocrisy in the wake of its January 2020 assassination of the comparable Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani.
Daniel Falcone: As the US media mourns the death of Colin Powell and regrets the passing of a “memorable and principled statesman,” can you comment on how the actual history competes with this memory and knowledge construction of this notable figure?
Richard Falk: The legacy of Colin Powell is a complex one that will take time to sort out. There is no doubt that he projected the public image of an African American who was moderate and genuine in his commitment to national military and diplomatic service, and a patriot in the traditional sense of supporting his country, ‘right or wrong.’ He had a notable career in both the armed forces and diplomacy, becoming the first African American to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State. These achievements set Powell on a high pedestal, a role model for persons of color, long excluded from the pinnacles of power and influence.
At the same time, for an African American in the last half of the 20th Century to identify with the Republican Party seemed to many problematic, even taking account of Powell’s chosen professional identity as a rising military officer. Born and growing up in liberal New York City makes this embrace of American conservatism even stranger and made one wonder whether he was a career opportunist, or someone alienated from his racial identity.
Such negative suspicions were generally overcome of his post-political life when Powell exhibited a different posture. He abandoned his Republicanism, and endorsed successive Democratic presidential candidates: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden. Powell called Trump ‘a national disgrace’ and openly supported his
impeachment. This turn toward the Democrats strengthens the view that Powell’s essential identity was linked to a sense of what he believed it meant to be an American of moderate persuasion and maybe some feeling late in his life that led him to emphasize racial solidarity with Obama, who had strong credentials as an anti-racist moderate. Then with the advent of Trump and Trumpism Powell seemed unhesitant about denouncing Republican extremism, I suspect as viewing it a deviation from his idea of what the Republican Party stood for, as well as his conception of ‘the American way.’ Powell also added to his positive image by engaging actively in charitable work for disadvantaged persons after his retirement.
At the same time, throughout his professional career stayed in his lane so far as anti-racism, national politics, and a globally aggressive U.S. foreign policy was concerned. It is not surprising that with such a profile, extravagant bipartisan praise was immediately forthcoming from stalwarts of both political parties with the announcement of his death. It was important for the American establishment to show the country and the world, especially at this time, that whatever the accusations of Black Lives Matter or the fallout from the police murder of George Floyd, that the American political class was not racist and would celebrate an individual of color for what he accomplished.
Yet, from the perspective of his role as a major international figure in the implementation of American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, where he lent prominent justification for, and leadership of the policies enacted in Iraq after 1990. Powell’s low point came when provided the highest profile justification of the invasion and occupation of Iraq by way of testimony before the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003. Powell later admitted that his presentation had been misleading and mistaken to its allegations that Iraq possessed prohibited biological weapons and was intent on developing nuclear weapons. Powell made the case of the Bush presidency for the Iraq War that commenced six weeks later and proved a humanitarian disaster for the Iraqi people and an expensive political failure for the United States, which shifted regional influence towards Iran when it had been supposed to contain it.
Powell had been admired in the post-Vietnam period for his insistence that the U.S. should be reluctant to engage in international uses of force unless its national interests were significantly involved, and it was prepared to devote sufficient military forces to ensure success without enduring major American casualties. What was dubbed ‘the Powell Doctrine’ earned Powell the moniker of ‘reluctant warrior,’ but in retrospect he was not nearly reluctant enough. Although he was reportedly skeptical about the case for invading Iraq in 2003, he went along with the Bush/Cheney resolve to remove Saddam Hussein from power and afterwards to engage in state-building and democracy promotion of a prolonged occupation.
Although Powell accepted responsibility for arguing a false case as to weapons of destruction before the UN Security Council during which he described Saddam Hussein as posing ‘an imminent danger to the world,’ he refrained from opposing the war. In fact, Powell would later comment, “I think we had a lot of successes in Iraq. Iraq’s terrible dictator is gone.” But so are hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians gone. This reality is rarely acknowledged, and when Madelaine Albright notoriously did so in a ‘60 Minutes’ interview, it was quickly walked back with all sorts of evasive explanations that showed no disposition to accept responsibility for the criminal character of the sanctions imposed during the 1990s or the devastation and chaos after 2003.
A second stain on Powell’s record came earlier, when as a major in the U.S. Army serving in Vietnam, he was assigned to investigate the My Lai massacre of March 16, 1968, when some 300 Vietnamese civilian were shot in cold blood by U.S. military personnel acting on orders. In his report, Powell seemed to be exonerating the culprits of this atrocity, incredibly concluding that “relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.” The report did admit that unfortunate incidents of this kind occur in wars, but there was no attribution of guilt for what was viewed around the world as a grotesque atrocity.
With Powell, it will be up to historians to draw a line between Powell as adhering to the ethics of a professional soldier and diplomat and Powell as faithful executor of the criminal aspects of American foreign policy in the period that he served as Chairman of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1989-1993, and as Secretary of State, 2001-2005.
Provisionally, what stands out in the aftermath of his death is that Colin Powell was a breakthrough national political figure who undoubtedly helped create new opportunities for black leadership and prominence, and subsequently refused to go along with the Republican Party’s embrace of reactionary extremism after 2016. A more balanced and nuanced evaluation of his role and degree of responsibility will have to wait. Powell was comfortable as a lead member of the American political class during the heyday of neoconservatism, which encouraged a diplomacy of intervention and overseas militarism in the years after the Soviet collapse. At the same time, Powell was never himself perceived as a neocon, and during his time as Secretary of Defense was seen as an opponent of the rashest neocon policies.
Daniel Falcone: Do you think that the US, from the Democrats’ perspective, see this as a special loss regarding their consistent efforts to rebrand their party and their credibility within the concept of “law and order?”
Richard Falk: I think by the time of his death Colin Powell had lost most of his relevance to the politics of the country. He might have seemed to some an embodiment of the Biden determination to restore an atmosphere of bipartisan consensus that prevailed during the Cold War and the early years of reaction to the 9/11 attacks. To some extent the Biden approach has succeeded in mobilizing the country for confrontational geopolitics directed at China. Internally however it did not seem as though bipartisanship could be restored, despite reflecting Powell’s preferences for moderation along the entire political spectrum.
Daniel Falcone: Can you talk about the career of Powell and the Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani (a person killed by the US) and draw any comparisons to the reactions and contextual framing of each?
Richard Falk: It is in many ways an apt, intriguing, and revealing comparison. Both military figures were admired professionally within their countries and enjoyed respect and the affection within their respective societies. As reflects the [obvious distinction and] global power hierarchy, Soleimani was assassinated through a CIA-led operation while Powell died a natural death. Powell was undoubtedly perceived by U.S. adversaries as complicit in the implementation of American foreign policy, including its aspects that seemed to violate international law, including the UN Charter.
In this sense, Powell was an efficient military commander who was closely associated with post-colonial American foreign policy, which had a particularly destructive impact on the Middle East. Soleimani, similarly, was portrayed as responsible for leading Iran’s resistance to the American occupation of Iraq and the extension of its influence elsewhere in the region (in addition to Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Gaza, and Lebanon). Soleimani was described by U.S. Government as engaged in ‘terrorism’ while Powell was viewed as an agent of unlawful American interventions and encroachments on national sovereignty. It remains to think about whether geopolitical realities result in the assassination of sub-altern leading figures with impunity while their hegemonic opponents die natural deaths. The people of Iran and of the United States looked upon these two men as fallen heroes.
Daniel Falcone: What does it say about the organized left, that progressives and Democratic Socialists within the US government are waxing nostalgic about Powell? Has the spectrum shifted so far right in your view?
Richard Falk: Powell is an ambiguous political figure from a progressive perspective (and to some extent, for opposite reasons, from a current Republican perspective). He seems to have ascended the heights of American life as a person of color, deriving from a humble background. In My American Journey Powell describes his ascent in these words, “Mine is the story of a black kid of no early promise from an immigrant family of limited means who was raised in the South Bronx.”
That such a personal narrative should evoke widespread meta-political approval should no surprise, indeed it is the fulfillment of the American dream, extended to a representative of a racial category that had been generally excluded from dreams that included ascending to the upper reaches of leadership in the armed forces and foreign policy. Celebration of these achievements were solidified by Powell’s non-abrasive personality and style, as well as by his record of professional competence.
I think that Powell would have received great praise in any era, but perhaps his non-confrontational manner and overall moderation are especially appreciated when Trumpism has taken over control of the Republican Party. To affirm Powell is partly to exhibit nostalgia for the pre-Trump politics of comparative moderation, although the excesses of the Reagan and two Bush presidencies make this affirmation of the American past somewhat sentimental. In sum, I believe, most American progressives always wanted to present themselves as part of anti-Communist, pro-Israeli, and pro-law and order mainstream. Of course, thankfully there were some notable exceptions, although too few, including Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Edward Said, Daniel Berrigan, and Daniel Ellsberg. Like Colin Powell, these exceptions are all male, and unlike him, they are all white.