On Friday, former Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke in Grand Rapids at the Michigan State Police’s annual Great Lakes Homeland Security Training Conference & Expo. Despite Powell’s stature and his prominent role in the political-military establishment since the 1980s, Powell’s scheduled appearance was largely unannounced. Of the three local television outlets and the Grand Rapids Press, only WZZM 13 publicized Powell’s appearance, reporting it on Friday morning. WZZM 13’s story made no mention of what Powell would be talking about, nor did it investigate Powell’s record while serving the United States government. It did report that Powell spoke in Grand Rapids in 2005, but neglected to give any information about what he discussed in that visit.
This lack of investigation was unfortunate, given both Powell’s record and his reputation of being a “moderate” who has been able to gain the respect of both Democrats and Republicans. Powell continues to be almost revered in the popular consciousness because of both his liberal stand on social issues (supporting affirmative action and a woman’s right to chose) and his allegedly moderate stand on foreign policy matters. This view continues to persist even though Powell played a critical role in building support for the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, an invasion that has resulted in the deaths of more than 655,000 Iraqi civilians and over 3,300 US soldiers.
On February 5, 2003, Colin Powell–then United States Secretary of State–delivered a briefing to the United Nations in which he laid out an argument for the invasion of Iraq based on Saddam Hussein’s development of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Powell’s speech was reported as fact, with the news media in the United States failing to investigate his claims. Instead, the media emphasized Powell’s personal “integrity” while asserting that his statements justified an invasion. At the time, many in the antiwar movement including Ali Abunimah, Stephen Zunes, Phyllis Benis, and Rahul Mahajan pointed out that Powell relied on unverifiable sources, repackaged old intelligence, and made a largely unconvincing and unverifiable argument in which false statements about WMDs and mobile weapons labs were made. While the media at the time and since has never honestly examined Powell’s case, Powell himself has asserted that he never believed the case for the invasion and that he refused to read some of the items the Bush administration wanted him to share. Powell has also claimed that the speech was “painful” and “a blot” on his record.
However, a detailed examination of Powell’s record reveals that far from being a moderate who was deceived by the deceptive Bush administration, Powell is a career military man who has earned his power and influence by supporting United States imperialism. One of the most detailed examination’s of Powell’s record, titled “Beyond Colin Powell’s Legend” by reporters Robert Parry and Norman Solomon, found that Powell has a history of doing what is in his own personal interests and in the interest of the government that he is serving in at the time. Beginning with his service as a young general in Vietnam, Parry and Solomon report that Powell dedicated himself to defending the larger goals of US imperialism. Powell arrived in Vietnam as an advisor to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) in 1963 during a time in which the tactics of collective punishment of the civilian population in North Vietnam were developed and refined. In his autobiography, My American Journey, Powell defended the brutality of those tactics:
“We burned down the thatched huts, starting the blaze with Ronson and Zippo lighters… Why were we torching houses and destroying crops? Ho Chi Minh had said the people were like the sea in which his guerrillas swam. … We tried to solve the problem by making the whole sea uninhabitable. In the hard logic of war, what difference did it make if you shot your enemy or starved him to death?”
“I recall a phrase we used in the field, MAM, for military-age male… If a helo[copter] spotted a peasant in black pajamas who looked remotely suspicious, a possible MAM, the pilot would circle and fire in front of him. If he moved, his movement was judged evidence of hostile intent, and the next burst was not in front, but at him.
“Brutal? Maybe so. But an able battalion commander with whom I had served at Gelnhausen [West Germany], Lt. Col. Walter Pritchard, was killed by enemy sniper fire while observing MAMs from a helicopter. And Pritchard was only one of many. The kill-or-be-killed nature of combat tends to dull fine perceptions of right and wrong.”
With justifications of brutality continuing years later, it was no surprise that Powell–who played an early role in investigating allegations of brutality and racism by US soldiers in Vietnam–rejected the idea that the United States acted with systemic brutality in Vietnam. Powell, writing just before the story of the My Lai massacre broke, asserted that “relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent” and that “isolated cases of mistreatment of civilians and POWs” did not indicate a pattern of abuse. This response was favorable to the United States military and according to Parry and Solomon, would characterize his military career. They also describe how Powell would come to the defense of a general charged with brutality in Vietnam, and never criticized the Vietnam War. The only real criticism Powell has issued has been in the development of the so-called “Powell Doctrine” that advocates going in with overwhelming force to ensure victory, thus responding to the frequent rightwing allegation that the US effort in Vietnam stopped short of what was necessary to achieve victory.
Following Vietnam, Powell continued his military career and earned promotions by acting as a loyal official who did what he was told. In the 1980s, Colin Powell would play a role in the Iran-Contra scandal, with Powell acting as military assistant to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. Parry and Solomon report that Powell likely knew about unlawful shipments of US weapons from Israel to Iran in 1985 and illegal third-country financing of the Nicaraguan contra rebels based on his boss’s knowledge of the efforts. When questioned about the incident, Powell would repeatedly assert that his memory on the events was weak. In 1986, Powell used his bureaucratic knowledge to conceal the transfer of thousands of TOW anti-tank missiles and HAWK anti-aircraft missiles to Iran. Powell was later made deputy national security advisor and played an important role in minimizing the fallout from the scandal.
In addition to the Iraq War, the Vietnam War, and the Iran-Contra scandal, Powell (as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) was also involved in the United States’ 1989 invasion of Panama and the Gulf War in 1991. Powell, who was initially opposed to US involvement in a Panamanian coup, would eventually come to support a United States invasion following heavy criticism of the foreign policy of President George H.W. Bush. Responding to the killing of one American soldier after four American cars ran a roadblock operated by the Panamanian Defense Forces, Powell convinced the Bush administration to respond with an invasion that killed hundreds of civilians within the first few hours of its air assault. Powell raised similar concerns about aspects of the United States’ intervention in the Persian Gulf–particularly the ground invasion–following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. However, like his concerns and doubts over the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Powell dropped his concerns in favor of supporting the administration. Powell would later dismiss questions of civilian casualties in the Gulf War by stating “it’s really not a number I’m terribly interested in.”
Contrary to the popular mythology in the press and among the political establishment, Powell’s record is far more controversial that what is typically reported. Rather than elevating Powell’s celebrity, media outlets need to critically examine Powell’s record in order to advance a greater understanding of US foreign policy.