Colin Powell became a household name because of the four stars on his Army uniform and his iconic statements about Iraq.
In the first Iraq war in 1991, he famously described what the U.S. would do to the Iraqi army that had invaded neighboring Kuwait: “We’re going to cut it off, and then we’re going to kill it.”
Such chilling bravado — and the subsequent victory over Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein — made him one of the most formidable and admired public figures.
A decade later, Powell’s public image lost some of its luster when he appeared at the United Nations and pointed to two large screens of satellite photographs and drawings, depicting secret facilities, mobile laboratories, trucks and rail cars.
He forcefully argued that same Iraqi leader possessed chemical, biological and perhaps nuclear weapons that made him a serious threat, and the assembled intelligence proved it.
”Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option, not in a post-September 11th world,” he declared.
“He made the most famous public argument in favor of the war in a memorable briefing at the U.N. Security Council,” said Peter Feaver, an expert on civil-military relations at Duke University, who said the argument “was subsequently found to rely on dodgy intelligence.”
For years, Powell was repeatedly asked about his U.N. address, at one point saying it was a “blot” on his record and at other times appearing defensive, saying many were responsible.
“So we all believed the intelligence,” he told NPR’s Steve Inskeep back in 2011. “The United Kingdom and other nations believed in the intelligence. And I was as disappointed as anyone, since I was the principal presenter of the case, when it turned out that so much of it was flawed, and it was single-sourced on a very unreliable source that we should have been aware of was unreliable.”
Haunted by Vietnam
But it was another military debacle — in Vietnam — shaped Powell as a young officer, and he would learn lessons that would recall as he made his way up the ranks.
“By the time I left in 1969, after my second tour it was clear that we had gotten into a war we didn’t fully understand,” he told interviewer Chuck Springston decades later. “It was not a war of communism vs. capitalism or totalitarianism vs. democracy. It was a war of nationalism.”
The North Vietnamese were willing to risk it all, he said. And the South Vietnamese had lost some of their legitimacy. “And what could we have done? Occupy the country with a million American soldiers and keep them there?” Powell said.
“He was haunted by Vietnam,” said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, “and really sought to avoid such tragedies and mistake.”
Powell came out of Vietnam with this key lesson: “Make sure you understand what you’re getting into. That’s manifested in other things I’ve said over the years, such as, ‘You break it, you own it.'”
It all became known as the Powell Doctrine, which retired Army Col. Pete Mansoor, a professor at The Ohio State University calls one of his “more powerful legacies.”
The Powell Doctrine “posits that the United States should only go to war as a last resort,” Mansoor told NPR, “with a clear and obtainable objective and exit strategy, and with overwhelming force and strong domestic and international support. The limits this doctrine places on the use of military force are debatable, and were clearly tested after 9/11, but the power of Powell’s declaration will be an enduring part of American national security deliberations.”
Ian Hurd, a political science professor at Northwestern University, said Powell realized the military was not a “straightforward tool to fix the world along lines desired by US presidents.”
“He saw the dilemmas, blowback and contradictions of American foreign policy,” Hurd said.
Powell was among the key officers in the post-Vietnam era who helped rebuild a military that was dispirited and rife with drugs, racial tensions and draftees who wanted no part of a regimented life.
A rise up the ranks
With President Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup, Powell and others continued to rise up the ranks. And he eventually became the first African-American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a post he held under both President George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton.
Peter Feaver of Duke points out that Powell had the stature to successfully sideline some of Clinton’s proposed policies.
“No chairman before or since had quite the level of political clout Powell enjoyed at his apex,” said Feaver. “He opposed the Clinton-proposed changes in how gays and lesbians could serve in the military and he opposed Clinton-proposed uses of the military in the Balkans. In both these cases, his opposition proved critical in shaping the policies that were eventually adopted.”
Powell, whose parents moved from Jamaica to the Bronx, made much of his immigrant roots. And he also recalled the sting of racism in the South when he was a young Army officer.
“I came into the Army just after segregation ended, and it was still a situation where I could go to Fort Benning, Georgia, to get my infantry and paratroop and ranger training,” he told CBS This Morning five years ago, “but if I went outside of Fort Benning, Georgia, to Columbus, Georgia, it would still segregated. I couldn’t get a hamburger. And it was another few years before that ended. So we’ve come an extremely long way over the last half-century of my public life, but there’s a way to go yet. We shouldn’t think it’s over. We know it’s not over. We see the problems.”
And as the US military struggles to promote and retain a diverse officer corps, many black officers point to Powell as an inspiration and a role model, including the current Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, himself a retired four-star Army officer, and the first black Pentagon leader.
“It will be impossible to replace Gen. Colin Powell,” Austin told reporters while on a trip to Europe. “He was a tremendous personal friend and mentor to me, and there’s a hole in my heart right now as I think about his loss.”
Powell’s doctrine of sufficient force and his call to “understand what you’re getting into,” were clearly tested during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as Peter Mansoor of Ohio State pointed out.
In that 2011 NPR interview, Powell was asked about his doctrine and the way ahead in Afghanistan. He replied:
“Well, the Powell doctrine … isn’t a doctrine in any Army manual. It’s just the way in which I looked at military operations — says make sure you have a clear political objective and make sure you bring all the tools of national power to bear — economic, financial, political and military, if necessary.
And if you find it necessary to use military force, send in a force that will get you decisive results. I never used overwhelming but decisive. You know what you’re going after and you’re going to put the force behind it.
We didn’t analyze it that way during the initial success after we got rid of the Taliban. We didn’t realize that, that conflict was not over. And so years later, both President Bush and President Obama found it necessary to send more troops in. And so those troops have essentially helped in restoring order in some parts of Afghanistan but not all parts of Afghanistan. The Taliban has not been defeated. And so we will have to stay there a little longer.
But the question that has to be answered is, at what point do you say to the Afghans, it’s now yours? You have a government. You have a president. You have a legislature. You have cabinet officers and governors, and we have helped you create a large army and a large police force. We will stay and provide training assistance and things of that nature, but from here on in, the battle is yours. And everybody pretty much is thinking that this has to happen sometime in 2014 and beyond.”
It would take another decade and two presidents to finally tell the Afghans that the U.S. was leaving.