US Secretary of State Powell is dead: the doubting warrior

US Secretary of State Powell is dead
The doubting warrior

From Roland Peters

Few US secretaries of state were as well known as the late Colin Powell. Because of his origins, his rise and his role in the war of aggression on Iraq in 2003, which he later regretted. The general had lost a battle against himself.

It was four difficult years that would dominate his later life. Colin Powell had climbed the ranks of the military, becoming National Security Advisor to Republican President Ronald Reagan, the first black chief of staff in the US armed forces, whom he led to Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1991. When George W. Bush won the election in 2000, he wanted Powell to be Secretary of State. The general was entirely to the taste of the conservatives: a charming, rhetorically skilful and powerful soldier at the head of US diplomacy.

Powell has now died, at the age of 84, fully vaccinated, of a Covid-19 infection. Internationally, the officer will be remembered primarily as the perceived key witness for the indictment against Saddam Hussein. Who lied to the United Nations Security Council and thus the world on February 5, 2003, disregarded concerns and at the same time assured that “every statement” was backed up by solid evidence. “Without a doubt,” Iraq is running a nuclear weapons program, he said.

Powell at his presentation to the United Nations in 2003.

(Photo: REUTERS)

The Iraqi dictator Hussein had weapons of mass destruction produced and thereby threatened not only the Middle East, but the Western world. Under this premise, the US invaded Iraq and took Hussein out of a hole in the ground. An Iraqi court later sentenced him to death by hanging. The alleged weapons of mass destruction and production facilities were never found.

Held in by hardliners

Iraq belonged to the “axis of evil” that President Bush had declared a year earlier as enemies in the War on Terror: Iraq, Iran and North Korea. In Europe, Powell’s presentation resulted in a historic split between US supporters and those who stayed out of the war effort. Among them was Germany with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. “I am not convinced,” said the publicly in the direction of the US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In terms of foreign policy, the Federal Republic emancipated itself from the USA for the first time.

Powell was the moderate in a US government that was out for revenge for 9/11 and allegedly also conveyed personal interests in it. Vice President Dick Cheney, for example: For years he had been the head of the Halliburton group, which received billion-dollar contracts from the US government during the Iraq war. One of them was to put out burning oil wells and mine the black gold yourself. Or Rumsfeld: He was on the supervisory board of a Swiss company that helped North Korea build nuclear reactors. Powell, on the other hand, was a clean man. He later described his appearance at the UN as “an eyesore on my career”.

Powell was from New York City, the son of Jamaican immigrants. He was best known in the USA through the reorganization of the US armed forces after 1990 and because of the so-called Powell Doctrine. The military should therefore be used cautiously and only when a victory is as good as certain through superiority, a clear goal is pursued and the public approves the operation. In the first Iraq war in 1991 this led to a great success.

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Colin Powell and Joschka Fischer in May 2003.

(Photo: imago stock & people)

Powell was considered a solution-oriented realpolitician and was convinced of the benefits of international alliances. He was thus an outsider in the midst of a government made up of old-style republicans who, after the seemingly disoriented 1990s, preferred solving problems with armed force and were skeptical of the United Nations and even NATO. Powell’s doubts about the operation in Iraq were great. In the end, however, as part of the US government, he helped organize the war against Saddam Hussein.

Powell later said he supported the president’s decision. “It’s like being in the military – you argue, you argue something,” but in the end, the one at the top determines the cabinet. In this, the soldier was unable to assert himself permanently against the hardliners Cheney and Rumsfeld. When Bush won re-election in 2004, he no longer wanted Powell. Four years later, he supported the Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama. He sharply criticized his Republican successor Donald Trump. Last year Powell again supported the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden.

Inner conflict

At the beginning of his ministerial tenure under Bush, Powell was also able to record diplomatic successes, such as the release of captured US soldiers in China who had crashed on a reconnaissance plane. At Powell’s instigation, the US military also left its peacekeeping forces in the Balkans. After that, Powell was, according to biographies, increasingly pushed into the role of somehow curbing warmongering tendencies within the US government and curbing hasty decisions by the White House.

After 9/11, Bush wanted to attack Iraq, but Powell first convinced the president to focus on the operation in Afghanistan. As time went by, this became more and more difficult. An invasion could destabilize the Middle East and burden the United States with an entire country, he warned Bush in August 2002. “If you break it, it’s yours,” he told the president, according to the Washington Post. Today, the invasion of Iraq and the attempt at nation building are considered a mistake by many Republicans, too.

Powell had moved to the Vietnam War at the beginning of his career for the United States and returned twice wounded. This time shaped him. In 1995, after his time as Chief of Staff, he wrote in his autobiography: “We vowed that if we decided in the future we would not agree to half-hearted warfare for half-baked reasons that Americans cannot understand.”

Such beliefs collided with the general’s sense of military duty in the revenge of 9/11. Powell’s 2003 decision to lay the foundations for the US invasion of Iraq before the United Nations Security Council in his hometown of New York City haunted him for the rest of his life.

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