The Only Man Who Could Have Stopped The Iraq War Is Dead

Colin Powell chose to sell a war he knew was wrong. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were unavailable for comment on his death

The Only Man Who Could Have Stopped The Iraq War Is Dead
Detail from Watchmen #2, script by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons, July, 1986. Via DC Comics.

Edited by Sam Thielman

Buy REIGN OF TERROR: How The 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump

THERE’S A SCENE IN WATCHMEN #2 that I imagine playing out between Dick Cheney and Colin Powell. The Comedian murders a Vietnamese woman carrying his child. As he pulls the trigger, the omnipotent Doctor Manhattan lamely tells him not to kill her.

“Blake, she was pregnant. You gunned her down,” Manhattan says, one Vietnam veteran to another.

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. Pregnant woman. Gunned her down. Bang. And y’know what?” The Comedian retorts. “You watched me. You coulda changed the gun into steam or the bullets into mercury… You coulda teleported either of us to goddamn Australia… but you didn’t lift a finger!

Colin Powell couldn’t rearrange matter or teleport. But he was an absolute national hero in 2002, a symbol of military integrity during an era of military fetishization. Powell, like Doctor Manhattan, saw a disaster unfold before his eyes. Unlike Doctor Manhattan’s apathy, Powell chose, in the crucial moment, to portray the disaster as necessary, however unfortunate that necessity might be, to stop a dire threat to international security. It is as if Doctor Manhattan acted as a character witness for the Comedian after the murder.

If you’ve read REIGN OF TERROR’s second chapter, you’ll find my portrayal of Powell here familiar: “The embodiment of everything the Security State believed it was, national hero Colin Powell, became the most important validator for the sort of war he had devoted his career to preventing the United States from fighting.”

Powell’s career between the Vietnam War and 2003, as reflected in all of the journalism about Powell, and especially during the First Iraq War when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, make it vividly clear that one of the passions of his life was to prevent another Vietnam. That was the point Powell was making during his famous 1993 “aneurysm” when he told Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that the military was not something to be thrown into a strategic lacuna. Or at least that was his mission until he reached its most important test.

GEORGE W. BUSH NEEDED COLIN POWELL. If the Supreme Court had made Bush president, in a far less direct sense Powell had, as well—by declining to run against Bill Clinton in 1996, a race Powell might well have won. After Bush v. Gore, Bush enlisted Powell as his secretary of state so Powell’s gravitas could compensate for his lack of it. Powell—both the first black person to be JCS chairman and the first to be national security adviser—was a statesman by any definition. He wanted to craft American strategy badly enough to overlook the fact that he would never be allowed to do so as long as his longtime adversary Cheney and Cheney’s mentor Donald Rumsfeld were in the administration. As soon as 9/11 happened, Powell’s old adversaries coalesced into a faction to invade Iraq. Powell was on the outside. Everyone in Washington knew it. Everyone in foreign capitals would soon learn it. But everyone also waited to see what Powell would do in response.

It’s hard to overstate this point. Ideological media had committed to the Iraq War, and they were already pre-positioned to disdain Powell as an obstacle to their general geopolitical psychosis. They mobilized to weaken him bureaucratically throughout 2002-3. The New Republic, shortly before the invasion, ran a cover package with Powell’s face beside Cheney’s, Rumsfeld’s, and Wolfowitz’s, asking “Which of These Men Is Betraying Iraqi Democracy?” (TNR, somehow, meant Powell.)

For those in Washington less committed to invading—but open to it—Powell was less a man than a north star. As long as he remained in the Bush administration, it meant that there were voices of sanity around Bush, and so it became possible to see Bush as something other than delusionally bellicose—or, at least, as a delusionally bellicose man restrained by the sobriety and responsibility of the hero at Foggy Bottom. This was a point that Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Bush were happy to see take hold, since it so perfectly served their invasion—so long as Powell kept playing his role.

Perhaps the most illustrative example comes from then-Senator Joe Biden. In summer 2002, Biden, long a critic of the neocons, saw the looming Iraq invasion through the prism of factional conflict within the administration. He sought to strengthen Powell. But Powell made the fateful decision to present U.N. weapons inspections of Saddam Hussein as an alternative to invading Iraq, rather than the precursor to it. Powell contended to Bush that seeking U.N. inspections cost them nothing; would minimize the objections of foreign capitals in the event of war; and could even provide a pretext for invasion should Saddam prove recalcitrant. That meant Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the Democrats’ leading foreign-policy voices, lined up behind Powell’s weapons inspections.

Bush perfectly exploited the opportunity Powell gave him. That fall, when he sought a vote from Congress on the invasion, a central argument was that a vote for war could be a vote for not-war, by strengthening Powell’s hand at the U.N. for inspections-based disarmament. “The House of Representatives has spoken clearly to the world and to the United Nations Security Council: the gathering threat of Iraq must be confronted fully and finally,” Bush declared after the Oct. 10 House vote.

Biden, casting his Senate vote for invasion, declared, like other liberal hawks, that it wasn’t “a rush to war. I believe it is a march to peace and security.” His Senate floor speech—which is wild—dunked on neocons for losing a policy battle to Powell and praised Bush for choosing “a course of moderation and deliberation.” Then he voted exactly as Bush and the neocons wanted and gave them the invasion they had for so long sought. It is of course also true that after 9/11, leading Democrats including Biden had their own reasons for invading—REIGN’s third chapter goes into them at length—and Powell’s actions gave them a banner to rally behind.

All this, you will notice, is before Powell’s February 2003 speech to the United Nations. Too much has been made of that speech, by Powell’s allies as well as his critics. By February 2003, with most of the invasion force mustering in the Gulf, the die had already been cast. Powell’s actions in the summer and fall of 2002 are ultimately more important than his waving a vial of talcum powder or whatever it was.

But that doesn’t mean the Powell speech was unimportant. First, Powell and his allies knew the speech was bullshit, and labored to remove from it only the most obvious bullshit, the bullshit that would immediately discredit Powell, and then treated this reputation management as an act of valor. (Saddam “has the wherewithal to develop smallpox” is an example of the evasive bullshit that Powell kept in the speech.) Second, Powell undertook the speech at the suggestion of Dick Cheney, who mocked Powell’s vanity by saying he could afford to lie for the team: “You've got high poll ratings; you can afford to lose a few points.” Third, the speech did exactly what Bush and Cheney wanted, which was to mute their critics. “I’m Persuaded” wrote Mary McGrory of the Washington Post:

Among people I know, nobody was for the war. All of us were clinging tightly to the toga of Colin Powell. We, like the rest of the world, trusted him. We read Bob Woodward's "Bush at War" with admiration and gratitude for our stalwart secretary of state. We wished Powell would oppose the war, because it seemed like such a huge and misdirected overreaction to a bully who got on the nerves of our touchy Texas president. But resistance of any kind at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was a boon to peaceniks. Powell patiently and humbly waited for his chance to convince the president that he couldn't have a shootout with Saddam Hussein and ride off into the sunset of world approval. …

I was told to remember that Powell was above all "a good soldier" and, once a decision was made, would salute.

AFTER BUSH’S REELECTION, a former ambassador recalled Powell’s reaction after learning he would not be staying on for a second term. “They had lied to him. All the crap about the so-called biological vans. Cheney and the neocons pushing on the CIA,” the ex-ambassador told author Robert Draper. “He was furious that he’d been made a patsy.”

Colin Powell made himself a patsy. He knew that what was about to unfold was wrong, disastrously confused complicity with resistance, and facilitated the end of an estimated 300,000 human beings. Powell, at the apex of his influence, destroyed what had been his career’s central purpose: preventing a repetition of Vietnam.

Draper, who spoke with Powell recently, outlined the likely course if Powell had resigned instead. (Draper framed it in terms of the U.N. speech, but never mind that.)

What if that same voice that publicly proclaimed the necessity of invading Iraq had instead told Bush privately that it was not merely an invitation to unintended consequences but a mistake, as he personally believed it to be? What if he had said no to Bush when he asked him to speak before the U.N.? Powell would almost certainly have been obligated to resign, and many if not all of his top staff members involved in the Iraq issue would also have quit; several had already considered doing so the previous summer.

If the State Department’s top team had emptied out their desks, what would Powell’s close friend [British Foreign Minister Jack] Straw have done? “If Powell had decided to resign in advance of the Iraq war,” Straw told me, “I would almost certainly have done so, too.” Blair’s support in the Labour Party would have cratered — and had Blair withdrawn his support for war under pressure from Parliament or simply failed to win an authorization vote, the narrative of collapsed momentum would have dominated the news coverage for weeks. Doubters in the upper ranks of the American military — there were several — would have been empowered to speak out; intelligence would have been re-examined; Democrats, now liberated from the political pressures of the midterm elections, would most likely have joined the chorus.

We can never know a counterfactual. The Iraq war was a product of multiple systemic failures and the alignment of multiple interests. We can never truly know if a refusal by Powell to be part of them would have prevented the invasion. But we do truly know that if anyone’s refusal could have prevented it, it was Powell’s, and Powell made the opposite decision.

Indeed, Powell told Draper that resignation was never truly an option: “What choice did I have? He’s the president.”

This was Powell’s bottom line: What choice did I have. “A corrosive careerism had infected the Army; and I was part of it,” Powell once wrote about his Vietnam service. (Scroll through that piece for an involvement in the My Lai cover-up I was unaware of; as well, Greg Grandin knows more about Iran-Contra than I ever will and he tweeted this.) Such derelictions accordingly define Powell for history as surely as they define his Vietnam-era predecessors.

In certain national-security fora today, I’ve heard respected retired officers of the generation just below Powell’s contend that leaders ought to ask themselves What Would Colin Powell Do. I can only hope that no Iraq War veteran who finds themself in Powell’s position ever does.