“Did My Instincts Fail Me?”: Colin Powell’s Tragic Flaw
He was the most celebrated soldier-statesman of his generation. Born in the South Bronx to Jamaican immigrant parents, Colin L. Powell, 84, who died of complications from COVID-19 on October 18, rose to become the architect of the 1991 Gulf War—the inventor of a new kind of military campaign: overwhelming, decisive, victorious. He was a four-star general, national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, secretary of state, and often cited as the most admired man in America. And yet Powell’s astounding success was tainted by another, defining moment: the case he made in a speech at the United Nations in 2003 that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). As I learned when I interviewed him for three hours in Washington, D.C., for my book, The Gatekeepers, Powell’s anger about this episode was never far from the surface. He always feared it would end up in the first paragraph of his New York Times obituary; sadly, but inevitably, it turned out to be in the first sentence.
In his efforts to avert America’s ignominious war in Iraq, Powell probably never had a prayer. The 43rd president’s secretary of state opposed the impending invasion, but he was repeatedly shut out by his rivals, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney. Things with Cheney and Rumsfeld got so ugly that James A. Baker III, who had been consigliere to Bush’s father, privately urged Powell to resign. As Baker told me, “I said, ‘Colin, you need to go in and…let him know that if you’re not going to be his primary adviser in devising and implementing his foreign policy, that’s not what you signed on for.’” But Powell, for all his misgivings with the commander in chief, would not threaten to resign. “He wouldn’t do it,” says Baker. “He never did it.”
When I repeated Baker’s words to Powell, in 2016, he erupted at the implication that he should have fallen on his sword. “I’m tired of this shit!” he snapped. “If that’s what Jim said, then Jim didn’t understand everything I was doing in that period and didn’t understand how it [came] out. I tried to help the president. I gave him my recommendations.” Powell was referring to his private meeting with George W. Bush and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice on August 5, 2002, in the White House residence. “I want to make sure you understand some of the consequences of this,” Powell told the president. “Once you take out a regime…you become governor. You’re in charge. If you break it…you’re the one that’s got to put it back together.” Contrary to legend, Powell never called this “the Pottery Barn rule”—you break it, you own it—though he rarely corrected journalists who did because he knew a catchy phrase when he heard one. Nor, according to Powell, was there a “Powell Doctrine,” though he did believe that “if you’re going to send young men and women in harm’s way, you ought to have a clear political objective…and do it in a decisive way.”
Powell’s counsel fell on deaf ears. Team Bush was virtually hell-bent on invasion. And having failed to dissuade the president from waging war, Powell was now all in. “If we have to go to war, I’m going to be with you,” he told Bush. When the president asked him to make the case for Saddam Hussein’s WMDs at the U.N., Powell reluctantly agreed.
The first draft of the U.N. speech, composed by the vice president’s office, was made of whole cloth—“total bullshit,” Powell told me. He threw it out, and for the next three days and nights, Powell pored over the intelligence community’s case for WMDs, “scrubbing” the data with CIA director George Tenet. On the night before the presentation, which took place on February 5, 2003, Tenet told Powell he would meet him at the U.N. “No, I’ll pick you up,” Powell replied. He wanted to make sure that Tenet was seated behind him, on camera, as he made his case.
George W. Bush’s secretary of state appeared before the Security Council and declared: “We have firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails. [Saddam] has the ability to dispense these lethal poisons and diseases in ways that can cause massive death and destruction.” But this claim, and others, would turn out to be false, based on a notoriously unreliable source known as “Curveball.” Tenet later admitted, “We let Powell down.” But after that tainted, pivotal presentation, war with Iraq became a done deal.
Powell’s trajectory from mediocre student in a New York City public school to secretary of state to national icon—an African American George Marshall, it was said—had seemed fairy-tale perfect. “It was unthinkable,” he said. “It was unbelievable for a young Black kid with immigrant parents, raised in the South Bronx without a lot of skills to reach that level.” Indeed, Powell went on to scale unthinkable heights: publicly rejecting the GOP when faced with an increasingly intolerant and authoritarian Republican party; bravely defending the rights of Muslims; endorsing Barack Obama and, Hillary Clinton, and then Joe Biden for president; and speaking out against the threat to democracy posed by Donald Trump.
He was the most celebrated soldier-statesman of his generation. Born in the South Bronx to Jamaican immigrant parents, Colin L. Powell, 84, who died of complications from COVID-19 on October 18, rose to become the architect of the 1991 Gulf War—the inventor of a new kind of military campaign: overwhelming, decisive, victorious. He was a…