Post Magazine: Colin Powell
Monday, October 2, 2006; 12:00 PM
How did one of America's most trusted figures become the frontman for the Bush administration's biggest mistake? Pulitzer prize-winning reporter Karen DeYoung explores this question about former secretary of state Colin Powell in this week's Washington Post Magazine .
Today, DeYoung will be online fielding questions and comments about the life and career of Colin Powell.
Karen DeYoung is an associate editor of The Post. Her book "Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell," will be be released next week by Knopf.
Karen DeYoung: Hello, and thanks for joining me. It's a beautiful early fall day in Washington. Let's start.
Bristol, Rhode Island: Ms. DeYoung,
What if any agreement did you have with Colin Powell in pursuing and presenting this story? How much access did you have to him? Your book may make this entirely clear, but I did not see such disclosure in this article.
Karen DeYoung: There are several questions along this line, so I'll deal with it at the top. I had no agreement at all with Powell on how I would pursue or present his life story. Soldier is not an "authorized" biography--he saw none of it until it was already in print. After I had decided to write it and found a publisher, I approached him to ask if he would allow me to interview him. I initially asked for four interviews over the course of several years of research; I ultimately had six sessions with him beginning in the spring of 2003 through early 2005. He also allowed me access to his official (unclassified) papers at the National Defense University, where the military keeps its files on former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I independently approached members of his family and friends as well as colleagues and contacts from his youth and military career. My research included extensive interviews with members of various administrations in which he served, as well as with defense, intelligence, diplomatic and White House officials in the Bush administration. And of course a lot of one-the-record and unpublished documents. The book includes more than 50 pages of source notes, plus an extensive bibliography.
Silver Spring, Md: Ms. DeYoung: First, my compliments on a well written and insightful article. Am I to believe that no one else saw this coming? There is an old adage in business and leadership - "Never allow another person either to say or write your most important words." Aside from credibility, do you think President Bush should have made the speech to the UN Security Council?
Karen DeYoung: No. Heads of state and government traditionally only show up at the United Nations for the annual fall opening of the General Assembly session. The Security Council, where Powell spoke, is the province of foreign ministers and secretaries of state. Plus, as the President himself said at the time, they would believe Powell.
Newark,N.J.: What is the current status of the relationship between the
president and Mr.Powell? Has their obvious acrimony
affected the seemingly warm relationship that Mr. Powell
had with George H.W. Bush?
Karen DeYoung: They don't have what I would characterize as a relationship. The president and his wife dined with Colin and Alma Powell at their home (at Bush's suggestion--with press photographers in tow) five months after Powell's departure, and Powell was twice invited to meet with Bush along with other former secretaries of state and defense. Powell does have an ongoing relationship with Rice.
Springfield, Mass.: Does the Secretary of State believe is reputation is permanently damaged and does he believe there may be later opportunites for him to salvage a portion there of?
Karen DeYoung: Powell has not escaped unscathed--small crowds of demonstrators sometimes show up at his frequent public appearances, and his name will forever be associated in every account of the misguided march to war in Iraq. But his reputation has proved remarkably resilient...he's an extremely popular public speaker (judging by the thousands who show up to hear him) and judging by the mail I get, at least, still respected by many.
New York NY: I was relieved to read your article. It's one of the first comprehensive articles about Powell and his role in the war that I've read - too often his culpability in deceiving the American public is glossed over in some soldier/duty rationale. We will never know the truth as long as we continue to treat the central figures like literary/melodrama characters (i.e Bush the dauphin and Powell as Hamlet). I think he was a disgrace as Secretary of State. He owed the american people better. As a soldier who describes himself as full of pride at having been a soldier, I don't know how his conscience deals with all the death and destruction this war has wrought.
Karen DeYoung: Posting a comment.
Minneapolis, Minn: Did Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and others within the Bush administration (along with the president's brother, Jeb) not call for a "New Pearl Harbor" long before Bush was appointed to office by the Supreme Court? On February 20th, 1998, didn't a group called the "Committee for Peace and Security in the Gulf", whose members included Stephen Solarz and Richard Perle, among others, called on President Clinton to go beyond a military strike on Iraq and to help overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and replace his regime with a provisional government?
Why does the press continue to pretend they didn't know Bush had plans, long before 9/11, to invade Iraq? Why do they play along with the nonsense? What's in it for them? Isn't the endless ex post facto analysis rather phony in light of what we knew about Bush's intentions?
I'll save you some unnecessary work here: if the Republicans maintain control of Congress in the midterms, Bush will invade Iran. You heard it here first.
Karen DeYoung: Several things about the Feb.1998 document from the Committee for Peace and Security in the Gulf. Cheney was not among the signatories (nor did he sign a similar letter to Clinton the month before on taking action against Saddam Hussein), nor was Jeb Bush. Interestingly, Richard Armitage, later Powell's deputy secretary of state and longtime closest friend, signed both. At that time, none of the above was closely tied to Bush (who was still far from the nomination). As much as a policy prescription, the document was a way of dunning Clinton as weak on foreign and military policy. It called for establishing "liberated" zones in the north and south of Iraq (a long-held dream of Paul Wolfowitz, who advocated that the south be turned over to Ahmed Chalabi's INC), and the declaration of a provisional Iraqi government. It called for a U.S. air campaign against Hussein's "pillars of power" and for the positioning of "U.S. ground force equipment" in the region to assist anti-Saddam forces in the "liberated" zones "if necessary." It did not call for the use of U.S. ground forces in Iraq.
Fairfax, Va: General Powell, by all accounts, has had a wonderful career in service to his country both in the military and in government. One things seems to be "out of context" in everything that has been written- the theme that an otherwise brilliant tactician is being "picked on" or abused by others in equal positions around him. In your experience, how does this come to pass?
Karen DeYoung: Political handlers surrounding Bush, led by Karl Rove, never trusted Powell. He was too popular and too independent. Cheney distrusted him for the same reasons, and he and Rumsfeld both felt Powell was part of the "old" military and a political moderate--two things that were not part of their plans for the country and its armed forces.
Levittown, Pa.: It sounds to me that Mr. POwell based his UN presentation on George Tenet and his information rather than depend on the White House's prepared speech. Am I correct in this?
Karen DeYoung: Yes, that is correct. There was considerable overlap between the two--the White House version differed in tone (more fire and brimstone) and in specific assertions for which there was little intelligence support. But the general thrust of the assertions in both was the same. And of course we now know that there was little support for the CIA version as well.
Boston, Mass: Great reporting! Was it difficult to secure interviews? Did Powell consider waiting until 2008 to speak candidly about his interactions with Rice, Cheney, etc? Did he worry about the ramifications of his comments for Bush given the current political climate?
Karen DeYoung: Thanks. I believe that Powell feels it is unseemly and disloyal to criticize an administration in power--especially when you have been a senior member of it and participated (and publicly supported) in its now-criticized decisions.
Lancaster, Pa: The excerpt never mentions Hans Blix and his team of inspectors. They showed that virtually all of Powell's assertions concerning WMD were false before the invasion and reported this to Powell's face. Also, there was extremely credible criticisms in the international press of the aluminum tube arguments long before Powell gave his speech. This article gives Powell too much credit. A reasonable man would have known that he had publically asserted falsehoods before the invasion.
Karen DeYoung: This question is dealt with at length in Soldier. Blix etal never said (pre-war) that the WMD assertions were false. They said that Iraq was cooperating, after a fashion, that the inspectors had not yet found anything, and that given time they believed they could prove or disprove that the weapons existed.
Longmont, Colo: Your fascinating story about Colin Powell leaves one with this ambiguity: Why did he, at so important a moment, go ahead with a speech, and indeed consent to an entire policy, in which he could not possibly have had the kind of confidence he displayed during the first Iraq war. He says he was playing the part of the good soldier who does as he is told, but self-evidently the secretary of state is not a soldier of any type, as Cyrus Vance showed us many years ago. Surely he does know the difference (how could he possibly imagine that the mind-set of a soldier was appropriate to the secretary of state!), and a cabinet officer owes his first duty to the nation, not to an individual, even the president. I wonder also why Mr. Powell did not understand much earlier that he was being used (as your article suggests) by lesser men when he accepted State, and that his ideas about foreign policy were to a large extent at variance with theirs.
Karen DeYoung: Excerpts are by definition a narrow slice of a book. About half of Soldier is devoted to the Bush administration, charting Powell's estrangement over four years, and what he thought and did about it. The short answer is that he was loyal, obedient, and thought he was smarter than the rest of them. Experience had taught him that slow and steady won the race and he had never before been in a situation where his views did not prevail. It's also important to remember that at the time he gave his U.N. speech, Powell and many others here and abroad) believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Washington D.C.: Forgive me if I remember incorrectly, but Powell had stated publicly before the 2004 election concluded that he did not intend to serve to a second term as Secretary of State. Your article cites several instances in which Powell was uncertain of his future with the administration and was even anticipating possibly serving a second term. How do you reconcile that conclusion?
Karen DeYoung: Although there was a lot of speculation on this question, Powell never said. In the summer of 2004, when a series of anonymously-sourced stories said that Powell's deputy, Richard Armitage, had told then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that he and Powell planned on leaving after the election, both men publicly denied it.
Blacksburg, Va: Is your book "authorized" by Mr. Powell? Are its sources carefully noted? Or is your book, frankly, done in the style of Mr. Woodward -- using quotation marks around statements that may be imagined or presumed or not documented with precision?
Karen DeYoung: See reply to Bristol, R.I.
Los Angeles, Calif.: Secretary Powell will forever regret his presention to the U.N. of the now-discredited assumptions in support of declaring war on Iraq. What an unfortunate position he was placed in, as disclosed in your book.
But I'm curious what other differences Powell had with the Administration. You write, "Powell had constantly found himself on the losing side of regular ideological combat inside the Bush administration, particularly against Rumsfeld and . . . Cheney, over Iraq and a host of other foreign policy issues. What were these "other foreign policy issues"?
Karen DeYoung: The Middle east and the Arab-Israeli conflict, the refusal to open a dialogue with Iran and Syria, the reluctance to try diplomacy vis a vis North Korea, to name a few of several I detail.
Tucson, Ariz: Karen, thanks for this reporting but the story suggests Powell was not at fault for the stories he cooked up about Iraq.
In his autobiography, "My American Journey," Powell insists that never again would he "acquiesce" to those in power if it costs American soldiers' lives.
Yet he did precisely that, as your reporting shows, accepting this Iraqi UAV photo while rejecting that one and such.
Why didn't you ask him if he feels guilty for allowing himself to be used? Why let him avoid criticism by using phrases in your story like "It was a direct order from his commander in chief, and it never occurred to Powell to question it."
Thanks, Michael M
Karen DeYoung: Another question that goes to the problem with brief excerpts. His answer to whether he feels guilty is a long and nuanced one that appears in several places in the book. He certainly has regrets.
Fairfax Station, Va: Karen,
As I read your article, I became more and more outraged that the Bush machine would embrace honorable Colin Powell when it convenienced them, spew him out when they deemed his virtue had no further use, and found him expendable. Does President Bush and his front line of advisors have any conscience at all? It's pretty clear to any rational person that history will not rate Pres. Bush and his band of deceitful war hawks favorably regarding the Iraq debacle. Of Powell's main rivals, Donald Rumsfeld's sheer arrogance (recently noted in some very shocking testimony by Maj. Gen. Batiste) will be harshly regarded!
In spirit of full disclosure, I'm weighing in as a "reformed" Republican. As a fiscal conservative that believes elected leaders should ALWAYS be selfless statesmen, our current GOP hacks do nothing for me. Self-interest over country interest and spending...oh how they like their pork! The GOP will soon see my disgust is not unique when the November returns come in!
God Bless you, Mr. Powell for your selfless service to our Country. Your valid and reasonable concerns over how the war effort should be orchestrated will exonerate your reputation, but at what cost? We'll drain the treasury waging this war and my kids will still be fighting and paying for this when they become adults.
Karen DeYoung: Posting this comment.
Sparta, Tenn: No question- just a comment- great article/excerpt- I will be reading this book- no doubt it. One of the best and in depth that I have read on the web. I wish others wrote in this vein. There is never enough "back story" information- reporting is spineless and ruins lives and reputations- without the "why's and wherefore's" Of course, sometimes it is only hindsight that people are willing to really speak the truth. I realize the difference between reporting and writing a book.-but in reporting " just the facts", our humanity is often checked at the door. There must be a balance between slanted, biased stories, and an honest approach to a difficult reality, and we as a society must not give up that quest.
Karen DeYoung: Posting this comment, with my agreement that willingness to speak the truth often comes only in hindsight.
Bethesda, Md: Karen,
Thanks for taking my question. I'm having trouble reconciling my long-time admiration for General Powell with his role as an enabler of the war in Iraq - particularly his presentation to the U.N. Bob Woodward's new book highlights the difference between the administration's public optimism while their private intelligence showed the insurgency to be expanding. Is it fair to call these contradictions "lies"? Do you think General Powell ever lied to the public? Maybe this is a question of language, but how do you define a lie - as opposed to incompetence or self-delusion?
I'm looking forward to reading your book.
Karen DeYoung: I think you need to separate pre-invasion from post-invasion. I don't think anyone in the administration thought things would go as badly as they did once Saddam Hussein was toppled and U.S. troops entered Baghdad. Powell repeatedly raised concerns inside about an insufficient number of troops to stabilize Iraq, the decision to keep Iraqis out of an occupation government, ill-advised decisions by the Coalition Provisional Authority. But for reasons I outline in the book, he did not make those concerns public.
He did not wittingly lie in his U.N. speech; I think he could justly be accused of failing to seek the truth as diligently as he could have.
Draper, Utah: Just a comment: The enormous respect I once held for Colin Powell evaporated in an instant when I heard his lying UN speech. Not just for me, but for the country whose trust he dismissed on that occasion, he seems to owe a huge "mea culpa" moment. He owes us massive doses of the truth about Iraq, but I think he respects neither himself nor the people he served enough to oblige. Colin Powell lost his God when he pledged allegiance to the mortal king he served from 2000 to 2004.
Karen DeYoung: Passing along.
Eldon, Mo: The premise of the discussion today regarding your new book on Colin Powell is that the invasion of Iraq was the administration's biggest mistake. Others see it differently. The fact is, before 9/11 we just didn't know for sure if Iraq had WMD but suspicions were high WMD were present. Otherwise why the embargo? Why the flyovers at which Saddam regularly fired missles? Why the insistence of the U.N. inspectors that Saddam was not allowing full inspections? Why was Saddam behaving as one who had something to hide? What was the administration to do with CIA insistence WMD were there (remember Tenet's "slam dunk"?) Before 9/11 our uncertainty could be tolerated, after 9/11 the administration decided we couldn't take the chance. And no matter how you look at it, the administration succeeded in its goal to assure us as well as the world that Iraq had no WMD. That is not a failure, that is a success. Whether we should have stayed in Iraq after the victory over Saddam may be fairly debated; the administration believes that Iraq is the center of the war against terrorism and that to run away from that reality is to embolden and prolong the war on terror in a very dangerous way. Whether that is a mistake is yet to be determined.
Karen DeYoung: Powell did not disagree per se with the idea of invading Iraq. His concerns were based on the timing, amount of preparation and lack of international support. He thought there was no national security reason to move so quickly, and that the success of the mission was highly dependent on having a wide range of allies who would provide military, financial and most importantly diplomatic backing.
Topsham, Maine: Dear Ms DeYoung,
Reading the excerpts from your book, the question I kept asking myself was why didn't Powell resign? There were so many "good moments" when he could have decided to stand on principle and say "enough is enough,I will not be used by the White House anymore." After the repeated humiliations and slights and being treated little better than a mid-level bureaucrat rather than the most elevated Cabinet secretary, I can't understand why Powell stayed on. Loyalty is all well and good, but if your boss isn't going to take your advice, or even give you the respect due your position, then it seems to me you have a duty to resign.
Karen DeYoung: The question of why Powell didn't resign is posed at the beginning of the book. My goal was was to provide the answer by telling the story of his life--who he is and how he got to be that way. It's a nuanced, many-faceted explanation.
New Haven, Conn: It has been reported that Colin Powell was first offered the position as Vice-President while Bush was still a candidate. Is that account true?
Karen DeYoung: Not true.
Atlanta, Ga: You wrote: "When Bush selected Powell as his secretary of state in December 2000, it was seen as a stroke of political genius that instantly assuaged concerns at home and abroad about the president-elect's conspicuous lack of foreign policy experience."
Tell me, if that is 'political genius', what is political average? That was a no brainer and everyone, not just Bush and Powell, assumed it was going to happen. In fact, Bush used the assumption to try and get some African-American votes.
Karen DeYoung: Sometimes political genius is recognizing the obvious. I don't know how many African American votes it garnered Bush--it's interesting to note that Powell has never been an overwhelmingly popular figure within the black community. When he was thinking of running for president in 1995, polls indicated that both Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson were far more popular. Powell's enormous appeal as far as Bush was concerned was to moderates of all colors, and those who feared Bush's inexperience in national security and foreign policy.
Monroe, Mich.: As an active-duty military officer, I understand stoicism and loyalty to the President. With this in mind, can we ever expect Powell to write his memoirs in which he completely discloses the turmoil of the Bush White House during his tenure as Secretary of State?
Karen DeYoung: I think he left office with the idea that he would eventually write another book. In an epilogue to Soldier, I talk about a conversation I had with him in the spring of 2005 in which he said that he had already told all his "good stories" in his 1995 autobiography--mostly military tales--and couldn't imagine that anyone wanted to read another Washington tome. If he ever writes anything about the Bush administration, it will not be until Bush leaves office.
Rockville, Md: I enjoyed reading your article. One aspect of Gen. Powell's time as the Secy of State still puzzles me. That is, why did he take the job?
I think the traits that a career military officer tends to exhibit and expects from those he deals with, that of honor, truthfulness, loyalty, etc. are not traits that one generally sees in politicians and their associates. As a result, unless a military person is willing to change the way he operates, then he is probably going to fail in the political sphere.
I don't understand why Gen. Powell was willing to put his stellar rep at risk for a job in the Bush admin.
Karen DeYoung: He felt he still had some service left in him. He liked the limelight. He wanted to be Secretary of State and felt it was a job he was uniquely qualified to do. He didn't think Bush etal would interfere. On the latter, he was very wrong.
Loganville, Ga: Your article is compelling enough for me now to wonder if General Powell is actively seeking to set the record straight...who were your information sources?
Karen DeYoung: See reply to Bristol. I should add that the section of the book dealing with the first two and a half years of the Bush administration drew from my reporting on those events for The Washington Post, in addition to extensive research and interviews with participants after I began the book.
San Francisco, Calif: Good Morning Ms DeYoung,
Acceptable vs. unacceptable.
There is an inordinate amount of on-going cover-ups, excuses, blatant lies, and finger-pointing coming out of D.C.
The kind of stuff that after a while sours one's stomach, and produces fear for our day-to-day future.
After reading your article on Powell, I couldn't help wonder if the excuse of being an old soldier conditioned to not question his superiors' authority is acceptable.
I think not. Truth is acceptable. Ethics is acceptable. Care for human dignity and quality of life is acceptabole -- responsibility is acceptable.
But I find it totally unacceptable to sell-out a whole Country, and each single inhabitant for political safety, perceived appropriatness, and grandeur.
Karen DeYoung: Soldierly loyalty was one reason, but far from the whole story on Powell. He has enormous self-confidence, pronounced reluctance to let others think they have beaten him and a history in which his way of doing things had prevailed. All contributed.
New York, NY: Colin Powell fought in Vietnam and certainly was not naive about the problems that inevitably arise in this country when political leaders lie about military adventures. Given that Rumsfeld and Chaney are hardly new kids on the block, he must have been aware of their politics and methods and should have been more than a little suspicious about putting his own reputation on the line before the UN? Didn't he have military intelligence contacts that might have warned him? Do you know if he consulted any of them?
Karen DeYoung: His own extensive grapevine within the military hierarchy repeatedly told him of their concerns about Rumsfeld and the war plan. His own State Department Intelligence and Research Bureau disagreed with many of the CIA's conclusions about Iraq. And he had his own deep concerns. While others might certainly disagree, he felt he adequately expressed his worries to the President. But as he told me, he didn't "fall on his sword" over disagreements with those to whom the President had given the responsibility to plan and carry out the war and its aftermath.
Ypsilanti, Mich: If Powell had been appointed Secretary of Defense, rather than Secretary of State, do you think we would be in this debacle in Iraq?
Karen DeYoung: I doubt it. I once asked Powell whether he thought the national security structure in the White House would have been different with a stronger national security adviser, he said no and gave a one-word explanation. "Cheney."
Saint John, Canada: You may have missed the point of Bush's appointment of an African American to State in two tandem appointments. Don't you believe that Bush's comment upon the appointment, to show that his cabinet "looked like America," or in the case of Powell's successor, "to be the face of America to the world" shows that he was not trying so much to garner votes in the African American community with two black Secretaries of State but to win propaganda points in the Third World. And don't you believe that Bush never trusted Powell or, more especially, his liberal wife Alma?
Karen DeYoung: I think that Powell was chosen because he was one of the most respected figures in the country and it was believed that he would assuage voter concerns that Bush was inexperienced and unschooled in foreign and national security policy, and would appeal to centrist Republicans and Independents (and even some Democrats) who were worried about Bush's domestic and foreign policies. Obviously his race was seen as added political value.
Merritt Island, Fla: Can you foresee Powell leading a Republic Party that is more moderate in nature, thus breaking away from the current cowboy-style, neoconservative and religious-right Republican Party?
Karen DeYoung: When he decided not to run for President in 1995, but declared he would join the Republican Party, Powell saw himself as helping to lead a movement that would bring the party back from its rightward charge to its historical center over the ensuing four years. For several years, he left open the possibility of running as a Republican moderate in 2000. But he did little to make either of those goals a reality and eventually reverted to his innate lack of interest in electoral politics.
New Hampshire: Hi Karen.
It seems a tad "coincidental" that Colin Powell broke his deafening silence just as Bob Woodward's book came out.
Did they do this in concert?
Karen DeYoung: I can only refer you back to the earlier response. Beyond graciously answering my questions and allowing me access to the National Defense University Library, Powell had nothing to do with producing this book and certainly nothing to do with the date of its publication, which was determined last winter.
Pondicherry India: In your article you are presenting Powell, which is of course fine. But you are not presenting yourself vis-a-vis Powell, vis-a-vis the country, vis-a-vis the UN, vis-a-vis the world, vis-a-vis the moment of history. Would you like to comment on this? Thanks.
Karen DeYoung: Not sure I understand the question.
West Coast: What is more noticable in Powell, his good posture, or the bad company he keeps in regards to politics? Is there any chance Americans are confusing good posture with good character?
Karen DeYoung: This is a question that has come up repeatedly over Powell's career, especially among African Americans who have been critical of his role in conservative Republican administrations.
West Coast: As "race" is not a scientific term, is there someway for you to describe Powell's heritage without invoking that term? After all, we're all Africans now!
Karen DeYoung: The book draws a distinction between Caribbean-Americans of Powell's generation and those whose who consider themselfes African-Americans.
Boca Raton, Fla: It seems obvious that Colin Powell and many others fealt uncomfortable with the administrations strategy and stance taken for shifting the front for the war on terror from Afghanstan to Iraq. Its my feeling that Colin Powell was put between a rock and a hard place, faced with the decision to either be with or against the administration he worked for at a time when uniting behind the President was more important than ever because of the 9/11 tragedy. But thats just it, no matter how hard the administration tried, no information ever surfaced that tied Iraq to 9/11. My question is simple. If colin Powell had decided to speak out against the Administration, stating that he beleived the information given to US officials by an Iraqi informat was not relieable, and stated he fealt the Iraq war was neither warranted nor neccessary, how do you feel the country would have responded, and how different might history have been?
Karen DeYoung: A very good question and one that I don't think we, or Colin Powell, will ever be able to answer. Remember that at the time Powell was gathering information for his U.N. speech, he was told that all information the intelligence community provided was deeply sourced; he was not told that a number of the sources had already been designated as fabricators within the community itself. He specifically insisted that nothing provided by the INC be used in the speech. Of course we all know now that the INC had a great deal of input into that information.
McLean, Va: In your interviews with Powell, did he ever express resentment with the Bush administration for putting him in the "no win" position of presenting a flawed, unsubstantiated and slanted case for invasion to the Security Council?
Karen DeYoung: Sure. He initially was very angry at the CIA; that anger later shifted--or expanded to include--the White House. But his anger at them is colored by the undeniable fact that there were very few voices at the time--not the French or the Germans or any of the many countries opposing invasion--saying that there were no WMD at all.
Monroe, Mich: During the first Gulf War, Powell advised Pres George H.W. Bush against toppling Saddam because in his words, "if you break it, you buy it." With that in mind, why did he go against his own conventional wisdom and advocate deposing Saddam by invading Iraq in 2003? Notwithstanding the false intelligence of the second Iraq War, didn't Powell foresee the difficulty of an occupation that he advised against a dozen years prior?
Karen DeYoung: The "you break it, you own it" advice was to George W. Bush, before the 2003 Iraq invasion. In 1990-91, Powell advised George H.W. Bush that there were a range of options that could be tried before using a military ground force to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. The intention, in 1991, was never to extend U.S. military force into Iraq or to take over that country.
McLean, Va: Having been part of the scene at the time, I found it interesting that Powell really did not use the resources of the Department of State to full advantage. If he had, I think he might have protected himself from what ensued. My impression is that his years on the White House staff left him with a suspicion if not contempt for State's expertize. Did you get any feeling for this?
Karen DeYoung: I disagree. Powell took over a demoralized and severely under-staffed State Department, with a budget that had been repeatedly cut over the years. He is proud of his management skills and in fact succeeded in building up staff, budget and morale. Aside from his failure, in my view, to listen closely enough to State's intelligence bureau, he did not disagree with what his senior aides were telling him about Iraq. But he felt he could prevail by doing what he had always done--tactical moves intelligently and patiently applied within the administration. It was a bad calculation.
Alexandria Va: Ms. DeYoung, Twice in your Post Magazine article you mention unnamed foreign intelligence sources as sources of some of the allegations used to prepare Sec. Powell's speech to the United Nations Assembly. Have you or any of your Post colleagues probed to see if Israel Intelligence Service was part of this? Their government was certainly interested in neutralizing Sadam Hussein, and that Service a likely recipient of any outsourcing of human intelligence efforts after the downsizing of such work by the CIA in the late 1990's.
Karen DeYoung: This has been a subject of intensive reporting by The Washington Post and others. There is a lot of speculation and some minor facts, but no real conclusions. It's also important to say that Israel always viewed Iran as a far larger threat to its security than Iraq.
New York, NY: Thank you for giving perspective on the decline and fall of a man, who I wish had not declined and fallen.
I wonder about two additional items:
1. Does Powell have any regrets about choosing a Republican party affiliation?
2. What does Powell see for himself in the future, that is, given his enormous ability and experience, how does he intend to use it in the coming years?
Karen DeYoung: Powell's decision to join the Republican Party was based on several things...Virtually everyone he knew and was politically close to was a Republican--people like Frank Carlucci, Armitage and George H.W. Bush who were social and fiscal moderates and advocates of a strong defense. Although he considered his own politics at the time "55 percent Republican," he had no strong ideological leanings and under the right circumstances could have fit equally well in the Democratic Party. But at the time he decided, Clinton was likely to win another four years, with Al Gore, his vice president, a shoe-in for the 2000 nomination. If Powell was going to have a political future (and at the time, he was far from certain he wouldn't) his political calculus was that it had to be as a Republican.
Anonymous: In response to my question about Powell and Rice selections as African Americans serving the foreign policy aims of the Bush propaganda machine, you wrote the boiler plate "I think that Powell was chosen because he was one of the most respected figures in the country and it was believed that he would assuage voter concerns that Bush was inexperienced and unschooled in foreign and national security policy, and would appeal to centrist Republicans and Independents (and even some Democrats) who were worried about Bush's domestic and foreign policies."? Do you really think that answered my question, given that one of the strengths of Bush Senior, a major influence on his son's foreign policy, was (Former UN Ambassador, CIA Director, Ambassador to China) foreign policy? I wonder, because of your deft politic response to my question, have you considered running for public office?
Karen DeYoung: Hmmm. I won't rise to the bait except to say that there is very little evidence that the foreign policy of Bush, Jr. was influenced by his father's foreign policy views.
Washington, DC: I have to admit, I have always been puzzled by why Powell gets this reputation as "loyal to a fault" to his commander in chief. My first introduction to Mr. Powell was learning of his role in keeping the Clinton Administration out of the Balkins in the early 90s and allowing that conflict to fester and escalate into genocide.
At the time, Powell went as far as speak out publicly against his own commander in chief's policies (not only on what to do in Yugoslavia but also on gays in the military). Maybe he was right back then, maybe not, but he certainly wasn't loyal.
Karen DeYoung: Powell's outspokenness as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a position in which he told himself he was speaking for the non-political views of the armed forces, far exceeded his outspokenness as secretary of state. There was a major debate in the early 1990s as to whether he had exceeded his military brief on a number of issues, including Yugoslavia and gays in the military. On the latter, the uniformed military was inalterably opposed and Powell told himself he was giving the commander in chief his unvarnished advice.
Long Island, NY: Could you comment on this theory, please: I have always wondered if the real reason Powell stayed so long, and went along with so many policies and actions he must have known unwise (at best), was the hope that if he were on the inside, he might be able to affect the conduct of the war at least a little bit, to save some soldiers' lives. I.e., if you can't be the pilot, when you see the boat is heading for the rocks, perhaps you can at least lean in your seat? I have always thought he sold his soul, not to be in power per se, but to help ameliorate the debacle for the troops, whom he understood and cared about more than anyone else in that government does.
Karen DeYoung: I think there is some truth in that.
Sewickley, Pa: As the wife of a military officer who served in Iraq I feel particularly let down by General Powell. My husband signed up for his Army and can't wait to get out soon with twenty years in. The saddest thing is watching my gung-ho flag waving husband become cynical. Is it fair for this military family to believe that Powell was the one person that could have affected public attitudes enough to avert the debalcle we face now?
Karen DeYoung: Whether fair or not, it is certainly a widely-held view.
McLean, Va: Further to the matter of Powell and his use of the Department of State resources, I noted that some time back, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, his long time Aide who accompanied him to State, mentioned that the two of them...with absolutely no State personnel along with them...dealt with the Tenent and his staff in the CIA as they redrafted the presentation made to the UN. I have had old State colleagues mention they could never understand why they were cut out of this process and felt they could have protected him it they had been included.
Karen DeYoung: Wilkerson went to the CIA--the day before Powell showed up there--with at least two other senior state department aides. They were there throughout the process. Richard Armitage also went, as did Richard Boucher, Powell's spokesman.
Washington, D.C: Good afternoon!
What a fascinating and informative article! It certainly reinforced every negative opinion that I've ever had about Bush, Cheney, Libby, Rumsfeld and Rice. I found myself nodding throughout and seething at the all-too-familiar ploys employed by some in power when they want to keep someone "in his place." I have no doubt that Mr. Powell suffered numerous humiliations and slights at the hands of people who themselves never saw combat because they had "other priorities."
My father once described what Mr. Powell endured as the "two-ness" that Black men often experience in the corporate and political arenas. It was obvious that Mr. Powell was used and shown no more respect than the janitor. Quick question: Is it true that Prince Bandar was informed of the decision to invade Iraq before the Seceretary of State was? And, how is it that the Dept. of Defense took over foreign policy matters?
Karen DeYoung: Bandar was informed a day or two before Powell, but "inform" is not exactly the right word. The President called Powell to the Oval Office to say that he thought he was "going to have to" take Saddam out militarily. It was no secret at the time that they were headed in that direction. Although Powell took the message, he also believed he had at least another six weeks or so to try to avoid it with diplomacy.
Washington, DC: I really enjoyed your article because it might make some people realize the blind faith they have/had in Powell is extremely misguided. This is the same man who owes his military fast tracking to his less than rigorous "investigation" into the My Lai massacre. He's always been willing to obfuscate and lie in the name of following orders so long as it benefits him.
Where was his loyalty for Clinton when the president tried to lift the ban on homosexuals in the army? Instead, he privately, and publically derided Clinton's plans.
Powell is no different from the rest of these guys, and there is no reason to anyone to feel like he was taken advantage of. He should have know you can't trust lying thugs, even if they are nice to you.
He sold his integrity a long time ago, for power, prestige, a job for his son, and the ability to make millions of dollars for giving speeches to rich people. He made the Faustian bargain, now he should deal with the consequences.
Karen DeYoung: Don't want to hash over history here, but there is more to the My Lai story than you have described...I hope you'll read it in the book. Similarly with the gays in the military issue.
New York, New York: Ms. Karen I think your reviews will go thru the roof. Wonderfull journalism.
I dont think Mr. Powell really reflects on his 'blackness'. He said himself, when someone called him a 'blackman' that he was obviously not black, but Afro-American heritage.
This is the typical assertions ones receives from West Indians..they are not part and parcel of the American experience with segregation et.al.
He see himself, first as a man, soldier, statesman. Race plays no part in his 'ideal self'. Is my statement correct?
Karen DeYoung: Not correct to say "race plays no part." But I believe that Powell's Caribbean heritage and his Bronx upbringing in an immigrant community contributed greatly to his sense of himself--as our childhood and youth do for all of us. I have tried in the book to examine Powell's antecedents, childhood and youth as part of the explanation of who he became.
San Francisco, Calif: Do you address Mr. Powell's role in covering up the My Lai massacre in your book?
Karen DeYoung: Yes. See reply above.
Washington, DC: Please Ms DeYoung, can you comment on how Powell's
conduct in this case impacted the military?
Karen DeYoung: On balance, those who served with an under Powell in the military tend to put him on a high pedestal and retain a great deal of respect for him. There are exceptions, however.
Austin, Tex: In one of your first replies, you mentioned that Powell is reluctant to criticize an administration in power.
Would you be surprised to see Powell let fly with his side of the story at some point after January, 2009?
Karen DeYoung: Not surprised to see him express his views more freely. But I would be surprised if he truly "let fly."
Harrisburg, Pa.: Did you learn if Colin Powell kept in touch with General Schwarzkopf while he was Secretary of State? I wonder what General Schwarzkopf thought of the current plans for the war in Iraq and whether he was able to provide any comments to Powell directly.
Karen DeYoung: Powell and Schwarzkopf shared the Vietnam experience (both also in the Americal Division), something that has resonance in the psyches of both. But they are very different personalities and had a sometimes rocky relationship during the Bush I administration and the Gulf War.
Karen DeYoung: Time has flown and is now up. Thanks for all the great questions.
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