The Cowardice of Colin Powell

Is there anyone in American public life who gets so much credit for being a leader, while not truly leading?

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff and Secretary of State Colin Powell
Does Colin Powell’s statement on gay marriage have any significance?

Photo by Ben Sklar/Getty Images

Colin Powell has often been cited as among the most-admired leaders in America. Hence it’s been news this week that he followed President Obama in endorsing same-sex marriage. But is Powell really a leader, much less one worthy of admiration? It’s worth a glance back at his record in this election year as the nation discusses the attributes it seeks in a leader and contemplates what moral leadership really looks like.

Speaking on CNN Wednesday, Powell said he has “no problem” with same-sex marriage. Before he could utter another sentence on that subject, though, he defensively and dishonestly shirked responsibility for his critical role in enshrining a ban on openly gay military service into law. “It was the Congress that imposed ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ he said in response to Wolf Blitzer’s questioning. Powell admitted it was his “recommendation” but passing the buck to Congress may be the dodge of the century. As the first African-American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a hero of the first Iraq war, and the highest-ranking officer in the country, Powell commanded immense moral authority on this issue. Indeed his was doubtlessly the single most important voice in the painful debate, and the voice most pointed to by the Congress he’s now trying to blame.

While advocates of lifting the ban compared the gay ban to racial segregation in the military, Powell forcefully rejected the analogy, and his stature as a top African-American general put the issue to rest. Rear Adm. John Hutson, a high-ranking official who was part of the talks over whether to lift the gay ban, recalls that “Powell put a hole in the analogy to racial integration, not particularly logically, but just by force of his personality and who he was.” Hutson said it allowed the rest of the military leadership to “hide” behind Powell. It allowed other champions of anti-gay discrimination to say, “this isn’t the same as racial integration.  This is different, and Gen. Powell says so.”

Citing no evidence whatsoever, Powell insisted that letting gay people serve (not just openly gay people but any gay people—notwithstanding his simultaneous acknowledgement that they already did serve) would be “prejudicial” to “privacy, good order, and discipline.” That rationale, notice, is not time-bound—if sharing quarters with people who might find you attractive violates privacy, it doesn’t only do so if gays are unpopular, but does so always. It’s not an argument that’s subject to change as our culture changes, but an argument that’s subject to change only when you admit you were wrong about it, which Powell has never done.

Instead, he’s been repudiating his role in creating “don’t ask, don’t tell” since, well, gay rights started to become popular—and safe, and this from someone who is not even in, or currently running for, office. It was widely reported that Powell “changed his mind” about the gay ban early in 2010, when such a reversal could have been helpful to the repeal effort. But the reporting was wrong. What he actually said was, “If the chiefs and commanders are comfortable with moving to change the policy, then I support it.”

That “if” was almost universally ignored but shouldn’t have been, as it virtually negated his entire statement—the chiefs and commanders had not expressed their comfort at that point, and indeed some were about to become highly effective obstructionists by arguing the opposite, even suggesting that repeal could “cost lives.” Far from leading, Powell was following, and worse: He was putting his imprimatur on the thinly veiled anti-gay sentiment that military members had always used to prop up an indefensible policy—exactly as he had done when the debate was swirling during the Clinton administration in 1993. When he did endorse “reviewing” (but not actually ending) the policy, he cited the increased “acceptance of gays and lesbians in society,” again hardly a model of moral leadership.

It was neither the first nor the last time he’d do the popular thing over the right thing. After Operation Desert Storm in 1991, journalists learned that Powell had actually supported containment, not invasion but was perfectly willing to become a chief salesman for the war. In 2000, Vanity Fair’s Christopher Hitchens accused Powell of two “shameful cover-ups” in failing to come forward with knowledge of atrocities in the Vietnam War and illegal arms deals to Iran in the Iran-contra affair. Powell, charged Hitchens, “acted to gratify immediate superiors and to short-circuit any unpleasantness,” placing the “prestige of the military above any inconvenient ethical or legal concerns.” And after America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, Powell, as secretary of state, helped bolster a dishonest and ungrounded case for going to war, even though he later admitted he had strong private doubts.

Now comes his marriage-equality endorsement—weeks after the president takes the plunge. And even these remarks are couched in queasy moralistic justifications: He cited gay friends in partnerships that “are as stable a family as my family is, and they raise children. And so I don’t see any reason not to say that they should be able to get married.” Does he have a different view for childless gays? He doesn’t say. Either way, these are hardly the words of a courageous leader.

I’m not slamming all leaders who await the political cover of others to do the right thing—this, indeed, was my hope for the aftermath of Obama’s announcement, and sure enough, it’s having an impact: Several major politicians and groups, including the NAACP, have now taken the leap, and polls show immediate growth in popular support for marriage equality.

But I do seek to hold people accountable for what, in Powell’s case, is a long track record of failing to lead. Obama’s endorsement of marriage equality was deeply political. But it was also morally courageous, with the consequences to his political fortunes hard to pin down. If Colin Powell insists on posing as a leader while always following others, maybe he can adopt not just the position of President Obama but his principle as well.