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Colin Powell: The Successful Military Man and Failed Politician

Gen. Colin Powell, the US secretary of state during the first term of President George Bush Jr., died last week. Powell was the architect behind the US military campaign in Iraq, which resulted in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime some 18 years ago. If it weren’t for Iraq, Colin Powell would have gloriously gone down in the history books as an admired national security adviser, presidential chief of staff, and secretary of state of African-American origin. Indeed, there were even those who suggested that his experience, tenure and credentials could have paved his way to the Oval Office in place of Barack Obama. Had it not been for Iraq, Powell would have been the success story of a Black man of Jamaican origin who was able, thanks to the American military establishment, to advance through the ranks into the highest levels of power. Powell had extensive military experience that made him extremely wary of any US military intervention in any region of the world. He served in Vietnam, where he did well and saved three of his military comrades from death after their helicopter crashed. But it quickly became clear that while Powell’s military credentials were highly impressive, his political ones were lacking. In the absence of a political mind that understands the Middle East well, Colin Powell was just an insignificant player in the administration of Bush Jr., which was ruled by the neoconservatives. At the head of these were Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense. After the crime of invading Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, the administration of Bush Sr. made the decision to reject the fait accompli that Saddam Hussein had tried to impose. The US Army, led by Colin Powell, assumed the mission. Six months later, Kuwait was liberated. Above all, this was because the decision-makers sitting in the Oval Office understood the region’s geostrategic landscape well. Specifically, this was the trio that included President George H.W. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker and national security adviser Brent Scowcroft. But the same Colin Powell, after his political transformation, was not at the level of a military leader who achieved great successes in confronting Iraq in Kuwait. It became clear during the era of Bush Jr., who was devoid of political savviness, that the success of the military does not necessarily translate into political success. Colin Powell failed the Iraq test in light of the decision of Bush Jr. and those around him to launch a military campaign to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Yes, it was important to get rid of Saddam Hussein, who had committed all the mistakes that could be made since imposing himself as president in the summer of 1979, but the most important thing of all was to know what to do in the post-regime period. Colin Powell’s problem is that he didn’t play the role he was supposed to play as secretary of state. Instead of resigning and declaring a clear position against a US invasion of Iraq, he took to the United Nations to testify about Iraq’s supposed possession of biological and chemical weapons, in preparation for a major military campaign in Iraq. That was a big lie. Powell immediately regretted the move. But it was too late. Powell’s biography is a testament to the fact that great generals don’t necessarily become great politicians. You don’t stumble upon the likes of General de Gaulle or Dwight Eisenhower every day. Colin Powell had the courage to be critical of his mistakes in retrospect. He admitted that he had fallen victim to the absence of political sanity in Washington during the era of Bush Jr. and that he should have acted differently at the time. His acknowledgement and recognition of his mistakes obviously didn’t change the course of history, but it did reveal his desire to be an honest man before being a statesman or a politician. – Khairallah Khairallah (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)