October 22, 2021

When Colin Powell strode into my small room across from the “immediate office” of Secretary of Defence Caspar Weinberger and asked me what I was up to, I told him that I was trying to rescue the Art of War from bureaucracy. His response was typically sarcastic: this must have been in 1985, when he was a two-star Major General serving as Weinberger’s Military Assistant, tasked with averting, or absorbing, the bigger civilian-military frictions within the Pentagon — as well as the occasional outright fight, too.

Weinberger was a Right-wing Republican who worked for another, Ronald Reagan, and even in those days Right-wing Republicans were automatically written off as racists. But I never detected the slightest bit of discomfort in Powell’s demeanour, perhaps because neither Weinberger nor Reagan had any doubts about his ability: after leaving the Pentagon for a career-required Corps command once he was promoted to Lieutenant-General, Powell was summoned back to Washington by Reagan to serve as his National Security Advisor. That Powell was the first black man to run the “inter-agency” National Security Council was not much mentioned at the time, as far as I can recall, except perhaps in the vernacular press that I do not read.

More important was the impossible job at hand: in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra affair, Reagan’s entire presidency was in question. To outsiders who did not know any better, senility seemed the most charitable explanation for the President’s active support for an insane caper that ended at Tehran’s airport — and which could have left a very senior US official in Iranian custody.

His predecessor Carlucci, under Chief of Staff  Howard Baker, ex Senate Majority Leader no less, stopped the shipwreck, but it was Powell who righted the ship along with Reagan himself, and to such good effect that the faithful Reaganauts who had been plotting a backdoor exit from the White House for their hero when the scandal exploded suddenly found themselves discussing the possibility of the first third-term President since Roosevelt: Reagan’s ascent in the public opinion polls was astounding.

The famous Powell doctrine enunciated in 1991, on the eve of the Gulf War, weas that if the US goes to war, it must not play “controlled escalation” games as it did, disastrously, in Vietnam. If force had to be used, it was best used on the largest possible scale, to quickly end the war rather than start it.

But there was also an undeclared Powell doctrine, not for the nation but for himself: prejudice exists; but if it can only be inferred because it is not visibly enacted, just ignore it. Do not sacrifice your own advancement to try to re-educate the malevolent and the ignorant; do not start a scandal that will only exacerbate the problem.

When his boss, Caspar Weinberger, complained in a Senate Hearing that the Senators were ignoring his own Secretarial advice and listening instead to the strategic lucubrations of a “PhD with a foreign accent” — he was referring to me, testifying about my book The Pentagon and the Art of War in a debate about the 1987 Defense Reorganization Act the book called for — Powell told me not to kvetch (he grew up with Yiddish speakers in the Bronx). Just be happy that the Senators are listening to you, he said, and that we will finally be able to re-organise the Pentagon.

But it was not until decades later, in a chance meeting aboard a transatlantic flight, that he told me why he was so little agitated by the subtle racial tensions of the Reagan years. As a battalion commander in Vietnam, he was recruited on a number of occasions by more senior officers to avert racial tensions among the troops, to avoid violence not with fists or even handguns but with fragmentation grenades or even M.16s.

For him, that was the end result of McNamara’s political science: a war not only endless but nonsensical, in which the same village might be flooded with economic aid, propagandised by a provincial team, bombed with napalm to destruction and then rebuilt. Hence his personal approval of Col. Warden’s “Instant Thunder” plan for the 1991 Iraq war: bomb every military target day after day to break up Iraq’s logistics, knock out bases and destroy as many armoured vehicles as possible. Then launch an all-out armoured offensive, force Saddam Hussein’s surrender and retreat from Kuwait — and bring the troops back home.

As a result of the 1987 Defense Reorganization Act, Powell was the first Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff who was in the actual chain of command. And although he was too tactful to order the Army and Marine field commanders about as the subordinates they were, when the Marines started nibbling at Kuwait before the two weeks of bombing was done, he made sure that it was no more than a photo-op. Ignoring the majority view in Washington that air power always disappoints (because it did in Vietnam) he understood that it was best to hollow out an enemy before moving the tanks forward. That was the Powell “first” that really matters: not that he was the first black US military chief, but the first and so far only US military chief since 1945 to win a war.

The last thing that Powell thought would happen was the disastrous repudiation two decades later of all that was learned in Vietnam and all that was demonstrated in the 1991 war: that American military power can destroy high-contrast targets anywhere and can defeat enemies that assemble in conveniently targetable mass formations — but cannot defeat insurgents. As Powell well knew, the “counterinsurgency warfare” peddled by generals with PhDs was never more than military malpractice, as Afghanistan 2021 showed yet again.

Over the past week, every obituary of Powell has interrupted its praise to condemn his tenure as Secretary of State (another first for a black man that Powell himself hardly celebrated) because it was his approval that made the 2003 invasion of Iraq politically feasible.

As usual, the media criticises the intelligence malfeasance that trapped Powell — the failure to recognise that Saddam was only pretending to be developing nuclear weapons — as opposed to the inability of the over-staffed, over-funded intelligence community to recognise that if Saddam Hussein and his regime were removed, what would ensue was not “democracy” but a Hobbesian war of all against all as different factions killed each other. (When I testified accordingly before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee just before the war, the pro-war witness call me a “racist” who denied that Iraqis could sustain a democracy, just as the Germans and Japanese did after 1945…)

Then there was the fact that an Iraq in civil war would not be able to resist Iran. So there were ultimately two choices: stay out of Iraq, or convert the US Army into a 700,000-strong Mesopotamian constabulary forever. When Army Chief of Staff Shinseki said exactly that in a Congressional Hearing, he received zero support from the Intelligence Community, so Rumsfeld & Co ridiculed him with impunity for something he emphatically did not say — that 700,000 American soldiers were necessary to defeat the Iraqi Army — and denied him the customary extra year.

That was Colin Powell’s world on the eve of the 2003 war that would tarnish his reputation. As a Secretary of State, he could not apply the Powell doctrine to flood Iraq with troops. What he should have done — as he was the first to recognise in the aftermath — was to give a simple choice to Bush: Mr President, either give up the dream of a US-made democracy in Iraq or send in 700,000 troops, which cannot be done.

If the intelligence community had realised and transmitted what was happening in Iraq, Powell could have calmed the war fever with a phone call. Without that support, Powell couldn’t turn harshly against Bush, who was not only the President but also in effect a family friend, from the days of his father’s vice-presidency.

As it was, the second Iraqi war became an agony for him that never actually ended — very poor recompense for a life well-lived from the time that he packed boxes in a Bronx shop as a teenager. Characteristically, Powell kept in touch with the fatherly owner (who urged him to study on at all costs) and then with his sons, all through the years.

I only met Powell now and again over years, and it was only early on, and then in 2003, that those meetings were charged with much significance. But his death is still a real blow. I miss him already.