Powell Leaves Mixed Middle East Record
Legendary American figure lauded in Israel, lashed in Iraq
Tributes poured in from across the American political spectrum in reaction to the passing Monday of former US Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell. It served as a rare instance of Democrats and Republicans finding common ground in today’s hyperpartisan Washington.
Powell’s legacy in the Middle East, however, is mixed, to put it lightly.
“His story was overwhelmed by the Bush Administration’s agenda on invading Iraq. It’s a legacy that still reverberates today in terms of lost American stature, and created an Iran that no longer had an Iraq to contend with,” Joel Rubin, former US deputy assistant secretary of state and a Powell disciple at the State Department, told The Media Line.
Despite a groundbreaking record of service across multiple administrations, Powell, who died at the age of 84 from COVID-related complications, never could shake the consequences of his 2003 presentation to the UN Security Council, in which he cited faulty US intelligence claims that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had stashed weapons of mass destruction. The claims served as the basis for the US invasion of Iraq, led by then-US President George W. Bush. The operation toppled Saddam but carried disastrous consequences for the region, including the rise of the Islamic State group.
Powell, who later said he presented the information despite personal misgivings about its veracity, called the mark a “blot” on his career.
“There were a lot of intel issues around that time. Between the first Gulf War and the second, there was a radicalization of the region. Powell worked with the intelligence he had at the time. Saddam was no angel, and the threat was there,” Asaf Romirowsky, executive director at Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, told The Media Line.
“The reality of the region today is that there is more of an understanding of state actors vs. nonstate actors. There’s a very different mentality now when it comes to the intelligence,” he said.
Powell, though, was widely respected and trusted at the time, leaning in part on his success as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when he oversaw Operation Desert Shield, also known as the First Gulf War.
Following Saddam’s 1990 occupation of Kuwait, and fearing that an invasion of Saudi Arabia would come next, the US launched an international coalition against Iraq, claiming a decisive victory within 100 hours. Powell’s popularity soared, leading to rumors about presidential ambitions, which never materialized.
“I think he had a legacy after the Gulf War of ‘91 that was significant. And then it got inverted,” said Rubin.
Still, Rubin says the current period of Israeli-Arab normalization had its groundwork laid in the institution-building in the Arab world championed by Powell.
“He was a significant player on lots of different issues. I remember I was in a meeting at the UN General Assembly in 2004 and he grabs onto this idea of working with Arab countries and civil society and good governance, and the concept of helping the people in the Arab world – improving their quality of life. He was definitely pushing for moderation and better governance in engaging with the Arab world,” said Rubin.
“He was able to maintain an approach that allowed him not to be toxic in the Arab world, unlike [US Vice President Dick] Cheney and [US Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld. He took the time to understand the players on the ground. Problems in the region come when we attempt to parachute in ideas that don’t fit the current environment. Powell took the time to look at everything and understand the reality,” said Rubin.
Multiple experts said Powell had a rich understanding of the Middle East, beyond natural resources and religious sects.
“Powell had an understanding of what a Muslim country could look like. He knew Iraq had a history of a constitution. He had a vision of where Islam and democracy could find bridges and where they could not,” said Romirowsky.
Powell brokered the so-called road map to peace for Israel and the Palestinians, a two-state peace deal that still serves as the basis of much of America’s policy on the conflict.
Despite Powell’s public calls for a Palestinian state and admonishment of Israeli settlement building and treatment of Palestinians, he was fondly remembered in Israel in the hours after his passing, including by those on the right.
“He was the embodiment of what it means to be an American and people in Israel value that as a concept and a model. It reflects the American Jewish lived experience of making it in harder conditions, and there is a common set of values that grow from that. He exuded those values,” said Rubin, speaking of Powell’s hard-knock upbringing in the Bronx in New York City, in a neighborhood anchored by Jewish businesses.
“He held a more traditional understanding of the US-Israel alliance – a no-daylight concept. This was pre-Twitter and pre-internet. It was a different mentality. There wasn’t all this drama created online that you see now to fracture the relationship,” said Romirowsky.
“What I find to be interesting is that he was considered an honest broker by the Israelis, and even though there was much disagreement, he was respected by the likes of [Israeli prime ministers] Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon.
Powell convinced Shamir not to retaliate against Saddam in the face of Iraqi Scud missile attacks on Israel during the First Gulf War, showing an understanding of Shamir’s concerns while other defense officials believed Israel should rely solely on American protection.
“He understood Shamir’s concerns. To his credit, Powell understood the traditional kind of Israeli deterrence. He wasn’t ever seen as someone trying to stab Israelis in the back, even if his positions and views didn’t directly align,” said Romirowsky.
Ultimately, that view of Powell as an honest broker – the Iraq debacle notwithstanding – seemed to permeate the obituaries following his passing.
“He had a way of understanding, he had common sense. He didn’t come from an imperialist perspective, but more from a real-world, down-to-earth position. Even in the Bush Administration, taking on the hardest tasks, he kept his reputation intact because of his humanity,” said Rubin.