How Should We Remember Colin Powell?

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S1: Colin Powell knew how you were going to remember him.

S2: Thank you, Mr. President.

S1: Frozen in time at the United Nations on February 5th, 2003.

S2: I cannot tell you everything that we know, but what I can share with you when combined with what all of us have learned over the years is deeply troubling. What you will see

S1: this is when he laid out the case for the Iraq War. The case that Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction.

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S2: My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources. Solid sources.

S1: He spoke for over an hour that day.

S2: These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.

S1: And many of the things he said were wrong. Here is another way to remember him.

S3: You met him in person alone. And he just seemed kind of like a hip guy.

S1: Slate’s Fred Kaplan covered the general when he was national security adviser under Reagan and when he became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff a few years after that. And again when he was appointed secretary of State. That’s when Powell gave that fateful testimony at the U.N..

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S3: I’ve met a lot of Four-Star generals in my time, and he was probably the most informal, so you would have a normal conversation with him. He wasn’t remotely stilted.

S1: Powell was also loyal, loyal enough that despite harboring deep doubts about the Iraq War, he allowed himself to become the invasions chief salesman loyal enough that even after he left George W. Bush’s cabinet, he refused to criticize it. For Fred, that kind of loyalty was equal parts admirable and frustrating.

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S3: And you know, there were a couple of times when he got, you know, kind of pissed at me for certain things. And I wrote, and most generals would just not talk to you anymore or would would act a lot more formal about it.

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S1: What would he say? Oh, come on.

S3: Well, he wrote me an email once after I wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times in 2006 called Colin Powell Nowhere man. Actually, you want me to actually call this up so I can read it

S1: in this article. Fred called out Powell for remaining silent as the Iraq War descended into quagmire. He called Powell a prop in George W. Bush’s photo ops. That is when the general tracked down Fred contact information. And the thing is, even though Powell was pissed off, he was also funny.

S3: Dear Mr. Kaplan, someone sent me a copy of your recent column blasting me. You must have been writing against the deadline since earlier criticisms were better, argued, which is a friend of a mutual friend of ours told me, He’s trying to win you over here. He wants, he wants you to engage with him. And I did. And then he wrote back saying, I wouldn’t mind staying in touch and batting ideas back and forth.

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S1: I mean, he lamented that he would be remembered for the speech he gave in front of the U.N. Security Council.

S3: That’s right. He did. He did regret it greatly and which is why I at the time I was along with many other people, frustrated that he wasn’t coming forth.

S1: Do you think he should be remembered for it, do you think that should be like the first paragraph of his obituary?

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S3: I don’t know. He wasn’t. Look, the first paragraph, I don’t know. Certainly one of the top three.

S1: Today on the show, remembering Colin Powell soldier, general and cautionary tale. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. By his own admission, General Colin Powell wasn’t exactly academic. He was born in Harlem, raised by Jamaican immigrants and all through school. He was just a C student.

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S2: I have my entire New York City Board of Education transcripts from kindergarten through college. I wanted it when I was writing my first book. I wanted to see if my memory was correct. My God, it was straight c everywhere.

S1: And but what he lacked in academic rigor. He made up for in political knowhow when he entered the military. First, through an ROTC program, something clicked.

S2: I found something that I did well and something that I loved doing. And I found a group of youngsters like me who felt the same way. And so my whole life then was dedicated to ROTC in the military.

S3: And I say to you, you don’t have to be academically. Brilliant to excel first as a soldier and then as a as an operator, but I mean, he was a hard worker and he was a very smart guy in ways that were valuable for what it means to be smart as a soldier and as a political operator and a bureaucrat. You know, I was a reporter, a newspaper reporter when he was the national security adviser and when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and I had some dealings with him even then. And he he always struck me as very straightforward, very candid, very up on what he was talking about, but also in another way, I once saw him. He was he was national security adviser. I saw him speak to a group of school kids like elementary school.

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S1: And this is way back. This is in the 80s, if he was national security adviser, right?

S3: And it was something to watch. Why? Well, because like he was introduced by these moronic board of Education types who didn’t know anything about him. One of them called him a lieutenant colonel. He was lieutenant general at the time. So he gets up and he goes, Somebody said, I’m a lieutenant colonel. I Carmel the Senate general generals give orders, so come on down, come closer to the stage. I want to talk to you all. And then he would say things like, Listen, you have to study hard, you have to learn how to speak properly. That’s how you get ahead. You have to look at you see the White House, I’m in that building in the West Wing. And he went on like, you know, just it was it was really quite inspirational.

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S1: It’s funny you talk about his charisma because we were looking at this speech he gave at Howard University in the 90s, and I was struck in that too. Like, he was funny. Oh yeah, very funny. And just not what you think of as a military guy. So at ease with himself.

S2: So the poor commencement speaker is left with the original problem of how long to speak. And I have a simple rule. I respond to audience reaction. If you are appreciative and applaud loudly very early on, you get a nice short speech. All right, let’s get serious.

S1: And so happy to be at a historically black institution, honestly, like he was just thrilled to be there.

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S3: Oh, it’s never made any bones to you once said something like, you know, people say that I’m the first black this or black that. And, you know, some people would say, don’t think of me that way. But no, he said, Look, that is exactly how I want you to think of me. I’m very proud of this. When Jesse Jackson was running for president and he was working in the administration, Jackson would call him for advice on defense matters. And he talked with him and he was on a talk show once and somebody said, Now Jackson thinks this about defense. And he said, Look, you’re trying to get me to criticize him, and I’m not going to do that. He made no bones about about that being a very important part of his identity.

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S1: After becoming only the fourth Black Four-Star, General Powell was appointed national security adviser to Ronald Reagan, then under George H.W. Bush. He became the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That is where he articulated a particular perspective on how the U.S. should think about stepping into war. I’ve read that his view on the use of military force was deeply informed by the U.S. experience in Vietnam. Can you explain that a little bit how that kind of set up his time advising the first Bush presidency?

S3: Well, when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he was very much involved in writing the National Strategy statement, basically. And he came up with these rules like he had here, like the five rules, the five questions you should ask before you decide to go to war. And this became known as the Powell Doctrine. And what it basically was. It was this it was I mean, it sounds commonsense, but it wasn’t at the time it was OK for you to go to war first. You should try everything else first.

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S1: Hmm. That seems really basic. But man, I’m glad someone wrote it down.

S3: And then even then, you should figure out what is what’s the political objective here? You know, this objective should be really important. And B, you should think it through very clearly, and you should also think through very clearly whether military force will actually achieve this objective and whether it can be achieved at a reasonable at an acceptable cost and risk. And then once you decide you’re going to go to war, you should use overwhelming force. None of this, you know, sort of step by step escalation stuff for dipping your toe in it and so you should use overwhelming force. And that became controversial later when we started doing counterinsurgency war. When we, you know, we don’t go in with force, you go into, you know, affect the hearts and minds. And so it became very controversial. And in fact, a little bit out of fashion. But but either way, it greatly influenced the debates over the next few decades whether and how to use force.

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S1: He became known during the first Bush presidency George H.W. Bush for televised press conferences and America kind of got to know him that way. Do you remember those? Oh, sure. And what do you remember of them?

S3: Well, this was during the first Gulf War, and I was a newspaper reporter and I was covering those press conferences. The Gulf War, this was, you know, pushing, you know, Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and George H.W. Bush said, You know, this shall not stand. And so we deployed, you know, hundreds of thousands of troops to push him back out of Kuwait. And you know, we hadn’t seen any major war since Vietnam and we lost out. It looked like we didn’t know how to fight wars anymore. And nobody studied this stuff anymore. Nobody knew what any of this stuff meant. And so he was one of the main people who would go out at these Pentagon press conferences and go on face the nation and things like that to explaining in very simple terms what was going on here.

S1: Give me an example.

S3: Well, I remember one time he said, You know what we’re going to do with Saddam’s army, we’re going to post, we’re going to cut it off and then we’re going to kill it.

S2: Our strategy to go after this army is very, very simple. First, we’re going to cut it off and then we’re going to kill it to cut it off. That began last week.

S3: I mean, things like that which sound a bit crude, but hey, it’s like, OK, now that explains what we’re doing here.

S1: And he became really popular, right?

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S3: I mean, when he came on these press conferences and people said, Well, who is this guy? Then you got to know a bit more about him that, you know, son of a Jamaican immigrants who were born and grew up in Harlem. But no, he you became. Wow. This is a real guy. He’s come up from nowhere. He’s and yeah, that was when he sort of became public, a public figure.

S1: So then when George H.W. Bush left office in the early 90s, what happened to Powell then?

S3: You know, he was a Republican, so he was out of power and he wrote a book called My American Journey, which was a huge bestseller, and that around the same time, he started thinking about running for president.

S1: Why didn’t he? It seems like he has a great platform. People like him.

S3: Yeah. You know, I remember watching him speak at a Republican convention. I forget which one and thinking to myself. Choose, you know, this is what Republicans really thought I might vote for one myself. But no, he didn’t. I mean, the story I heard was that basically his wife told him you were not going to run for president because she she was afraid that some lunatic would assassinate him

S1: because he was black.

S3: Well, this is what everybody. Look, let’s remember this. A lot of people were worried about this. When Obama ran was like, Oh God, what’s going to happen to this guy? So this is well before Obama. And yeah, so I don’t know if that was the reason why. Well, I think even even he acknowledged that that was one factor in why he decided not to run

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S1: for a while there. Powell seemed to recede from the limelight. That is until George W. Bush appointed him secretary of state in early 2001.

S3: He was known by everybody. I mean, when Bush appointed him as secretary of state know, I think he might have been confirmed 100 to nothing. I mean, it was like, Oh, great, this is great. He came in very confident in speaking as if he was going to run the show and

S1: he’d worked with George Bush’s father, so he might have assumed she knew the ropes.

S3: And also, you know, when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Dick Cheney was secretary of defense, and by the way, a quite a different person from the Cheney that he later became.

S1: I mean, he was in a cabinet full of people who were familiar, who had known for years, including Cheney. But their relationships had kind of eroded what had happened.

S3: Cheney installed as the undersecretary of state for arms control, John Bolton, who’s whose real job it was to report back to Cheney everything that Powell was doing on arms control and to try to derail as much of it as possible.

S1: When I read about this time in Powells life, joining George Bush’s administration right before nine eleven, it’s like middle school cafeteria shenanigans, but everyone. But there’s an army.

S3: Why do you think this is so unusual?

S1: But it just it seems crazy. People are out to get each other.

S3: Well, they were allowed to get power, basically.

S1: When we come back, Fred Kaplan explains why so many people in the George W. Bush administration were trying to undermine Colin Powell. After becoming secretary of State, Colin Powell had a tough learning curve, mostly because his colleagues, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were constantly elbowing him out of big decisions after the terrorist attacks on 9-11. This dynamic got locked into place. It became clear Colin Powell had a different idea of what a war on terror should look like.

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S3: I mean, look, there was no discord on, for example, whether to go into Afghanistan and oust the Taliban and kill or capture Osama bin Laden. There was no disagreement on that

S1: very early on. There was a Camp David meeting right where Powell said, Oh yeah, it’s time to get Osama bin Laden, and here’s how you do it.

S3: But but it didn’t do what it did to others, which is make them OK. We’ve got to just go make people hurt. And now’s the time to go after Iraq because we want to go after them for a long time. He was more, you know. Well, the idea is still to keep the world, but not to go, not to go crazy, but because everybody else was going in that direction. It did serve to isolate him even more.

S1: Powell was reportedly meeting with, I believe, the foreign minister from the U.K. basically his counterpart in the UK before the Iraq invasion, and they were both trying to figure out like, how do we get our bosses not to do this? What’s it going to take? And it’s just so stunning to look back on that now and think. These two people knew and they were quite powerful, but still they couldn’t

S3: hold anything back. They weren’t really they weren’t in control. They weren’t really running the show and there was, I think it might have been that meeting that his counterpart said, Well, I understand that that your president turns in at 10 o’clock and sleeps like a baby, and Powell said. Oh, I sleep like a baby, too, I wake up every two hours screaming.

S1: So given how opposed Colin Powell was to the military going into Iraq, how did he end up being the chief salesperson for the war at the United Nations? Well, see,

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S3: that’s another case of him being outmaneuvered. Cheney had the idea.

S1: You call it a diabolical plan.

S3: Yeah, there wasn’t a lot of support to do this. And so Cheney was the one who came up with the idea that Colin Powell should make the presentation to the U.N. Security Council. Why? Because people would believe Colin Powell was. They wouldn’t believe. Dick Cheney or just about anybody else in the administration, so powerful. And this is this is kind of the tragic part of the story, how he was given a script and he goes, This is on bullshit, I’m not going to read this. And so he went to Langley, went to CIA headquarters and he kind of buried himself there for days, going over all the intelligence. And he would say, OK, prove to me this and and they would prove to him that. And he came up with a speech to speech that he gave, which, you know, made the case that Saddam Hussein does have weapons of mass destruction was based on the evidence that he. Figured was at least plausible and in some cases, compelling. And what we’ve learned since is that George Tenet, who is the CIA director who’s, you know, one goal the CIA director at the time this is before there was a director of national intelligence of the Central Intelligence Agency was the Central Intelligence Agency. They briefed the president on threats and the president was there. Main customer, if not their only customer. And if the president isn’t paying attention to them, then they are, they’re nowhere. And so it is ideal as we’ve got to please the president, and it made him determined to show that there were weapons of mass destruction. And so there were analysts within the CIA who disagreed that Saddam did have weapons of mass destruction. But those analysts were not brought into the room.

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S1: So Powell never knew about them.

S3: He was never made aware that this was was not the only opinion that there were some who thought otherwise. He was not introduced to the people who thought otherwise. And so he was he was bamboozled.

S1: So deferring to the president and armed with incomplete information from the CIA. Colin Powell laid out the case for war and it was convincing.

S2: We believe Saddam Hussein knows what he did with it and he has not come clean with the international community. We have evidence these weapons existed. What we don’t have is evidence from Iraq that they have been destroyed or where they are. That is what we are still waiting for.

S1: Do you remember watching the speech?

S3: Oh, yeah, sure.

S1: I remember, too, it was like everything stopped to watch it.

S3: Listen to this. I’ll admit I was against the war at that time and for about two weeks after that speech, although still up to but before the actual invasion began, he convinced me that, yeah, OK, this seems like a reasonable thing to do. And I wrote a couple of slate columns saying so. And then I realized now that this doesn’t make sense and, you know, opposed the war again a little bit before it started. So I had a two week moment of conversion. And yeah, the conversion was was because of the speech by Colin Powell. And a large part of that was because it was Colin Powell delivering it, and I didn’t think that he would knowingly be telling lies or believing bullshit.

S1: Do you ever think about what our timeline would look like if Colin Powell had just refused to endorse the war? Because Bush did ask him at one point, like, I need you are we are you with me on this?

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S3: Well, here’s the thing. First of all, he he wasn’t the type to do that. And in fact, most military officers aren’t. And you know, the rule in military forces and you, you, you, you obey all legal orders. And as long as you didn’t think this was illegal, then you, you, you salute and do it or you resign. I think that have he had resigned? While he was still secretary of state before the war started. I think it would have had an enormous impact.

S1: The foreign minister in the UK said I would have resigned too.

S3: Yeah, I think it would have affected a lot of the allies who are most of them. Reluctantly going in with us would have had a huge impact on domestic politics of this because he was still a universally admired and respected figure. You know, this is this is the tragedy of Colin Powell in that sense that and he had said publicly what he was telling many people pride with me. Yeah, it could have had a huge impact now at the same time, again, I don’t I can’t think of very many Four-Star generals who had who were in the position that he was in. Who who would have done that?

S1: It’s funny because I think you’re right that, you know, it wasn’t in his nature. But the funny thing to me, when you read about the forces that were aligned against him in the Bush White House and cabinet, they already saw him as like some kind of resistance member. So he was trying not to be something that they already thought he was. Yeah. And for that reason, that’s why I think it’s so challenging that he did not speak out and why it’s sympathetic. It’s it’s easy to see him as a tragic figure. But I feel like I can’t.

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S3: Yeah, I think that’s a fair view. You can be a good soldier and all that. But it’s still, you know, not not against the law or against even your ethos come out opposed to something that you are known to be opposed to. So that that was that was my my problem and many people’s problem with Carmel.

S1: How did he leave the administration? He was forced. Right?

S3: Well, you know, it’s one of many cases where it’s unclear whether someone resigns or is fired. I think he he knew his his days were numbered. I mean, he waited until the end of the first administration, the first term.

S1: Part of what I think is interesting about looking back on Colin Powell is life right now is that I feel like in modern political discourse we often talk about Trump is like a big change that happened and as if republicanism hadn’t been changing for quite some time. Because I look at him and I see someone who it seems like the party like changed underneath him while he was quite an important figure inside of it.

S3: He was what he was a moderate Republican, which is a species that doesn’t really exist anymore in national politics. OK, I say, you know. You know, he spoke at some political convention, and I remember listening to him and thinking, well, this was really what the Republican Party stood for. I could see myself voting for a Republican now and then. And he was applauded at the convention, you know? But no, you know, it’s telling that, you know, he endorsed Obama over his good friend John McCain. He endorsed Obama again. He endorsed Hillary Clinton against Trump. Obviously, they endorsed Biden. He decried Trump on a few occasions. But yeah, but by the time he was still a figure of great popularity and respect, but very little influence anymore. And I think part of that is because, as you say, the Republican Party left him and the Democrats. A lot of people still remember the U.N. speech. And we’re we’re terribly weren’t terribly interested in what he had to say about about foreign policy.

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S1: Fred, thank you so much for joining me.

S3: Sure. Thank you.

S1: Fred Kaplan writes about war for Slate. And that that is our show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson Danielle, Hewitt, Davis Land, Elaina Schwartz and Carmel Delshad special shout out to the producers over its slow burn for their help with today’s episode. If you have not listened to their most recent season on the lead up to the Iraq War, check it out. Right now you’re like in your podcast app, just click over. Alison Benedict is the executive editor for Slate. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of Slate Podcasts and I am Mary Harris. You can see what I’m up to when I am not recording this show. Over on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk. In the meantime, I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.