Remembrances of Colin Powell since his death have tended to treat his pathbreaking journey as a Black man from modest means to two of the nation’s highest offices as entirely separate from his national security legacy. Not a few have considered only the latter.
Powell himself, though he rose to power at a time when the politically correct way to deal with race was to claim not to see it, managed his career as if the two were inseparable. As his peers memorialize him, they might remember that, though he often claimed to be an implementer and not a strategist, his life drove toward a grand strategy larger than the Powell Doctrine — a military and diplomatic superpower deriving legitimacy from its successful pursuit of justice.
The great tragedy of Powell’s career is not that he was a good soldier who helped get the United States into a conflict from which it has still not emerged. It is that the three American strengths his persona entwined – judicious use of military power, strong diplomacy, and an irreversible march toward equality – declined, perhaps irreversibly, on his watch.
Thirty-two years ago, in early 1990, the Cold War had ebbed enough to permit the organizing of a seminar on military doctrine under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (the OSCE, at that time the CSCE). NATO, Warsaw Pact, and neutral countries sent their senior military leaders to build confidence about each other’s intentions. As big as the official message was – we want to de-escalate tensions between mortal enemies – the unofficial message sent by President George H.W. Bush’s administration was even bigger. Representing the United States of America, alongside 34 national delegations that were entirely white and overwhelmingly male, were Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and National Security Council Senior Director Condoleezza Rice.
In French alphabetical order, the Americans sat amidst delegates from Austria and the two Germanies. Writing in the Washington Post after his death, Rice recalled Powell setting aside policy-heavy remarks to speak about “what it meant to be a military officer in a democracy.” As a very young congressional staffer watching from the back row, I recall not his words, but the goggle-eyed look on the face of the East German ambassador, and the grudging respect on those of the grizzled Soviet generals.
The many, many pixels expended on analyzing the “Powell Doctrine” often miss the larger vision of Pax Americana that he championed and represented, at home and abroad. Its explicit point – that the use of force should be restrained, overwhelming, and limited to core national objectives – rested on two implicit promises: first, that the United States would balance that overwhelming military power with effective and just diplomacy; and second, that the system the United States sought to use its power to export to the world was good and just and, as his life story illustrated, becoming ever more so.
Powell’s America used military force with confidence – and competence. If the first Gulf War represented the death of post-Vietnam syndrome, Powell as much as anyone delivered the death blow.
Promise of Effective Diplomacy
But Powell’s America promised the world that it would twin that overwhelming force with effective diplomacy. And it seemed to deliver, whether re-unifying Germany or pulling together the then-unprecedented coalition that joined the United States in fighting and paying for the first Gulf War. From James Baker to Madeleine Albright, Robert Zoellick, Richard Holbrooke, and others, Powell and his immediate successors at the Pentagon shared or even ceded the limelight to diplomats who enjoyed significant national followings of their own.
This is not to say that Powell’s vision made the Pentagon a passive follower – he was a keen bureaucratic infighter and when he disagreed with the civilians, whether on invading Iraq or allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in uniform, he was not slow to get his views out to the media.
He saw, though, that U.S. military power was most effective when it was thoroughly embedded in a civilian-led strategy and in legitimacy with the public (again, a lesson from the searing experience of Vietnam). And he understood his own story, and the America that it seemed to promise for everyone, as an important piece of the legitimacy and impact of American power.
As the Cold War wound down, Powell was a globally-known face of an America that seemed to be making good on the promise of its civil rights movement – and to be setting an example that underrepresented groups in countries around the world could follow. One man’s triumph over bigotry and hardship could translate into a whole society having done the same.
The national security establishment that first lionized him as chairman of the Joint Chiefs accepted with diminishing grumbling the series of well-pedigreed “firsts” that came in the 15 years after, from Albright and Rice at State (and Susan Rice at the NSC and Michele Flournoy in the #3 civilian slot at Defense) to Attorney Generals Janet Reno and Eric Holder, Joe Lieberman as the first Jewish vice presidential nominee, and of course President Barack Obama.
But in the years that followed, that same establishment accepted, also with limited grumbling, the undercutting of not just the Powell Doctrine but all three pillars of Powell’s worldview. As many of his eulogists have noted, Powell expressed skepticism during debates about the Balkan wars and both Gulf Wars, to no avail. The desire for an exit strategy he pressed helped preserve military might; but in neither case was the diplomacy that followed fully sufficient to the challenges on the ground. “Black Hawk Down” and the deaths of 18 servicemembers in Somalia happened on his watch, and the first of many opportunities to declare victory and hand Afghanistan back to the civilians passed untaken during his time as Secretary of State. Combat experience is vastly more common in today’s military than in the post-Vietnam one through which Powell rose; but clear U.S. victories are not.
US Diplomacy Overshadowed
It must also be said that Powell as secretary of state failed to reverse the decline in prestige and centrality for U.S. diplomacy that began before the ink had dried on statements recognizing the post-Soviet states. In retrospect, it accelerated as foreign policy moved to a military footing after 9/11. Although his commitment to institution-building and his knack, as former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw put it, of “always having time for people” made him the most beloved post-Cold War secretary of state, he didn’t do any better than Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Rex Tillerson, or Mike Pompeo at shifting the department’s budget trajectory or defending its prerogatives from encroachment by the NSC, the Pentagon, and every other government agency with global aspirations. In retrospect, the coincidence of State’s decline with its run of symbolic, history-making appointments looks a bit like the glass cliff –promoting members of disadvantaged groups to leadership positions just when the risk of failure is highest.
Powell himself understood with painful clarity that his success hadn’t “solved” racism. As angry white nationalism played a louder role in both national security and national politics, Powell spoke out – in a way he had not about Iraq intelligence, or anything else. Obama’s remembrance recalled Powell’s remarks about his 2008 presidential candidacy:
‘The correct answer is, he is not a Muslim; he’s a Christian,’ General Powell said. ‘But the really right answer is, ‘What if he is?’ Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?’
Powell couched his concerns not in race terms, but about the tenor of society as a whole, when he endorsed Obama in 2008, and Hillary Clinton in 2016, and when he let it be known he was no longer a Republican. Just as he was clear that the United States couldn’t be a superpower with an education system that failed too many of its children, it couldn’t be a just and effective hegemon while shutting down pathways to advancement – and denying the humanity – of a plurality of its citizens.
Although Powell often insisted that he was an implementer, and not a strategist, his priorities suggest that, in fact, he had a very clear sense of what underlay U.S. power and how to preserve it: public education, diplomacy, equity, and a strong but reserved armed forces. What would Powell’s legacy look like if it hadn’t been written, as Elmira Bayrasli points out in a forthcoming piece for New America’s The Thread, by white men who also got Iraq wrong and paid little price for it? Rather than Powell failing America at the United Nations in his famous 2002 Iraq speech, America, and particularly his national security colleagues, failed him. The question to ask is not what he should have done differently, but what, if anything, his life suggests we should do differently.