Colin Powell's mea culpa — and a nagging question

It’s sobering, on this Memorial Day weekend, to read the chapters on Iraq in Colin Powell’s new book, to ponder the waste of soldiers’ lives that resulted from the peremptory decision to wage war on the basis of specious intelligence.

It’s also his sad duty to acknowledge — finally, after nine years of silence — that the pro-war lobby within the Bush administration essentially traded on his image of rectitude when it trotted him out in front of the United Nations, six weeks before the ’03 invasion, to tell a string of untruths about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction.

Colin Powell

Powell, of course, is too congenitally diplomatic to state so bluntly that, as secretary of state, he was snookered by Dick Cheney’s neoconservatives, but it’s all there between the lines of It Worked For Me, a book that is ostensibly a meditation on life and leadership. And in so doing, Powell implicitly raises serious questions about the proper role of a public servant who is torn between his convictions and his institutional loyalties.

On this holiday, in between barbecues, we honor the sacrifices of those who fought and died. Powell clearly believes that many such sacrifices in Iraq were avoidable. As he writes, "We must exhaustively explore other possible solutions before we make the choice of war," but alas, he points out, President George W. Bush "crossed the line in his own mind" without ever once convening the National Security Council to discuss the decision.

It is Powell’s perpetual burden to have been complicit in a war that was launched, not as the last policy option, but as the first. He says that he realized, soon after his U.N. speech, that the WMD intelligence was garbage. He says that the Bush administration was ill-prepared to win the peace on the ground in Iraq — chaos ensued within days of the fall of Baghdad, and "we refused to react to what was happening before our eyes" — and that by the time Bush quieted the chaos in 2006, "years and many lives had been lost."

Powell insists that he went to the United Nations (and thus to the world) with the best possible WMD intelligence, after purging all the "incoherent" and "worthless" material concocted for his presentation by Cheney aide Scooter Libby, but even the best turned out to be bogus. The U.N. episode was "one of my most momentous failures," he writes. "I am mad at myself for not having smelled the problem. My instincts failed me."

What a farce that prewar period was, considering the many lives subsequently lost. It brings to mind the words of Paul Fussell, the noted scholar and World War II veteran who died Wednesday. Fussell spent much of his authorial career pondering the human cost of war, "the danger and the fear, the boredom and uncertainty, and loneliness and deprivation ... the stupidity and barbarism and ignobility." At least Powell is trying to be noble, by owning up to his share of the stupidity.

And yet, I have nagging questions about his ’fess-up.

I asked him one such question Thursday, when I shared a stage with him at the Free Library of Philadelphia. He was there to pitch his book; a deep dive into Iraq was not on the agenda. Still, I asked, how was it possible that he had no inkling, prior to his U.N. pitch, that the case for war might be flawed? After all, British officials, in a summer 2002 memo, had already written that Bush was aiming for war and that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." If the Brits knew this in ’02, why didn’t he know?

He replied: "The British prime minister supported [the war decision]. The British Parliament supported it, our action against Saddam Hussein. Notwithstanding the Downing Street memo."

That didn’t really answer my question. We’ve long known, of course, that P.M. Tony Blair and Parliament signed on to Bush’s war, but apparently they did so despite the truth in the British memo — which, on stage, Powell did not dispute. He said that his U.N. speech reflected the consensus of "16 intelligence agencies" and that it was only "a few weeks later that information started to come in, ‘Ummm, that source wasn’t good’ and ‘Ummm, we’ve now seen one of those vans, and we don’t think it really is [a WMD].’ And so the intelligence started to get flaky."

This means that Powell knew within weeks of his speech that the case for war had fallen apart — and yet, as the record shows, he stayed silent during the final prewar phase that ended when war began March 20, 2003. Whatever qualms he had — as an old-school Republican foreign-policy "realist" — he kept to himself. Perhaps, as some have suggested, he should have quit in protest. But that wasn’t his style; he was trained in the military to respect hierarchy and demonstrate loyalty. As he writes in the book, "Loyalty is executing faithfully."

It’s tragic that such an innately noble public servant got caught in such a disastrous war decision, and it’s a shame that he vows to write no more about the episode. Yes, the WMD material was vetted by "16 intelligence agencies," but did he really not know in 2002 that Cheney was pressuring the agencies, often in personal visits, to serve up what the administration wanted?

And he’s certainly more restrained than his former chief of staff, retired Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who declared — seven years ago — that a Cheney-led "cabal" had driven the decisions and that "America is paying the consequences." Granted, Wilkerson is widely viewed as the go-to guy who will say what Powell is too discreet to say, but Wilkerson has said publicly that Powell has tarried far too long before speaking out.

In fairness to Powell, he’s voluble these days about Mitt Romney, voicing concerns about the candidate’s foreign-policy team — which is heavily populated by Bush-era neoconservatives who have never owned up to the Iraq disaster, and who are now urging a militarily aggressive stance against Iran. Powell’s book is, in part, an indictment of the cowboy mentality, and an implicit plea that the mistakes of the past not be repeated.

He may be out of step with today’s GOP, but he says he’s in sync with Thucydides, an ancient Greek historian, whose advice on war and peace is just as urgent today: "Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most."


Contact Dick Polman at or follow on Twitter @dickpolman1.