The evil of banality

A new biography confirms that Colin Powell went along with the Iraq war because he was following orders. The tragic irony of the good soldier is that he deserted the people he was trying to protect.

Published October 12, 2006 12:17PM (EDT)

On Sept. 19. 2005, eight months after Colin Powell resigned as George W. Bush's secretary of state, he gave a speech to the National War College. Afterward, an audience member asked him to explain whether he really supported the Iraq war and whether he had ever considered resigning. Powell replied that he had proposed trying diplomacy before going to war, and that Bush had agreed to try. Yet he had always known, he said, that Bush might decide to invade Iraq later. When Bush did, Powell said, "I supported him. I can't go on a long patrol and then say 'never mind.'" Powell concluded by saying that no, he had "never thought of resigning."

This story, which Karen DeYoung relates at the outset of "Soldier," her competent but constrained new biography of Powell, raises the crucial question that will forever hang over the career of America's most famous soldier: Why did he continue to give public support to a war that privately he had grave doubts about? In fact, the story also provides the answer. Powell's comparison of serving as secretary of state to going on a combat patrol says it all: He stayed on the Bush team because he was a loyal soldier, for whom resigning was not making a principled stand but deserting his post. Powell's decision cleared the way to a disastrous war, hideously bloody and apparently endless. The war, according to a new study from the Lancet, has cost the lives of 655,000 Iraqis so far, and the Army chief of staff has announced that he plans to keep the current level of U.S. troops in Iraq through 2010. But Powell seems incapable of grasping that he very likely could have stopped the war, and his biographer fails to sufficiently explore the issue.

Powell's military mind-set was the main reason he supported the war, but it wasn't the only reason. As DeYoung, an editor at the Washington Post, reveals, he was also a profoundly cautious man, not particularly ideological and not given to dramatic gestures or making waves. "He had risen steadily through the military and four administrations by maintaining a careful balance between deliberate prudence and intrepid competence," DeYoung writes. Powell's pride, and his past successes, also played a role. She notes that Powell "had been winning bureaucratic battles for so many years that he simply refused to acknowledge the extent of the losses he had suffered. Beyond his soldier's sense of duty, he saw even the threat of resignation as an acknowledgment of defeat. He was a proud man, and he would never have let them see him sweat." But the low-key professionalism that served him well in his illustrious military career proved a fatal impediment when it came to standing up to the radical ideologues in the Bush administration -- or indeed in even recognizing what he was dealing with.

Unfortunately, none of these are exactly earth-shaking revelations. DeYoung brings nuance and psychological depth to her analysis, but most of us already believed Powell went along with the Iraq war mainly because he was a loyal soldier and a consummate bureaucratic survivor. It isn't DeYoung's fault that she is unable to advance the story: The simple fact is that there seems to be nothing else to say. Until he made the fatal mistake of joining the Bush administration, Powell's life story was inspiring to millions; his autobiography, "My American Journey," was a bestseller. But his story, alas, didn't end there. And its sad climax and depressing denouement is not only thoroughly uninspiring, it's not even very interesting -- unless reading about a cautious executive's bureaucratic defeat is your idea of a good time. Of course, Powell's bureaucratic downfall had enormous consequences -- but that still doesn't make it, or him, ultimately very interesting. Hannah Arendt coined the famous phrase "the banality of evil" in describing the Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem; Powell's unfortunate saga might be called "the evil of banality."

DeYoung is a solid reporter and a sympathetic but not hagiographic biographer, and she mines Colin Powell's life story for all of the scarce nuggets she can. Its outlines are familiar: Raised in the Bronx by hardworking Jamaican-born parents, he was an indifferent student who suddenly shone when he joined the ROTC. He served in Vietnam, and left disillusioned by the war's execution but still believing in the rightness of the cause: "The ends were justified, even if the means were flawed." From then on, his military career went from one dazzling triumph to the next, culminating in his appointment, at age 52, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, from which position he led Gulf War I. He flirted with the possibility of running for president, but ultimately decided he didn't have the passion for the job. (Powell hated indecision, and his Hamlet-like inability to make up his mind tormented him.) After starting his career politically uncommitted, he became a Republican more by default and loyalty to his colleagues than out of any particular conviction: a moderate in politics as in all things, he described himself as being at best "55 percent Republican."

DeYoung paints a portrait of a decent, somewhat emotionally reticent man, a natural leader and team player who thrived on order and self-discipline and disliked direct confrontation. There is much to admire about Powell, not least his unself-conscious, unself-pitying attitude toward race. Powell's mantra about his blackness, which he learned from his parents, was, "My race is somebody else's problem. It's not my problem." His deep sense of comradeship with and loyalty to those serving in the military, especially the lowest ranks, is also commendable. As secretary of state under Bush, he tried to stick up for diplomacy and multilateralism in a singularly hostile and dysfunctional, indeed borderline bizarre, environment. He did his best to steer Bush administration policy toward a more even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. He reined the hard-liners in on North Korea, and tried to soften the blunt edges of Bush unilateralism on Kyoto and other issues. He opposed the administration's draconian moves to approve torture and disregard the Geneva Conventions. Generally, and admirably, Powell was a voice of reason among the strange stew of ignorant ideologues (Wolfowitz), enigmatic and conniving bullies (Cheney and Rumsfeld), wet-behind-the-ears enablers (Rice), and rigid, callow leaders (Bush) he found himself dealing with.

But none of that will be remembered. What will be is the act that will permanently define his career -- his presentation to the U.N. Security Council of the supposed "evidence" that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Few acts of political theater have been as momentous. The painful fact is that it was Powell's immense prestige, as much or more than his arguments (which proved to be almost all bogus), that sold the American people, Congress and the media on Bush's disastrous war. It is, of course, impossible to say for sure, but had Powell resigned in protest once it became clear to him that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld were going to make war no matter what, there is a good chance that the whole tricked-up case for going to Iraq would have collapsed, and one of the greatest debacles in American history would have been avoided.

For Powell, the moment of decision was not his speech to the U.N. on Feb. 4, 2003 -- by then he had signed off on the war and was just following orders -- but a private meeting he had with Bush on Jan. 13. In that meeting, originally reported by Bob Woodward in his 2004 book "Plan of Attack," Bush told Powell that he had decided to go to war and asked, "Are you with me on this?" Powell replied, "Yes, sir, I will support you. I'm with you, Mr. President." Describing Powell's take on this meeting, DeYoung (who interviewed Powell extensively for the book) writes, "When he thought immediately afterward about what Bush had said, Powell divined a difference between 'reaching a conclusion and [making] a decision to be implemented. Bush had concluded that war was the only way to resolve the situation, but he had yet to order the invasion ... Nothing had really changed, he thought. If Saddam capitulated completely, they could still avoid war, and the best chance of achieving that was to convince him that the Security Council was speaking with one voice." So Powell continued with his diplomatic efforts.

Sympathetic to Powell's difficult position, DeYoung does not point out the rather obvious casuistry and self-deception involved in his somehow arriving at the conclusion that "nothing had really changed" when the president had just flatly told him he was going to war. (She also omits some material found in Woodward's account that makes it even clearer that Bush had definitely made up his mind, including the quote "Time to put your war uniform on" and the paraphrase "I just want to let you know that, Bush said, making it clear that this was not a discussion.") And she dismisses the possibility that Powell could have stopped the war by protesting or resigning. Instead, she seems to argue -- although in a curiously indirect way, via an anonymous source -- that it was already too late, and that he had no real power to influence events.

She writes, "Even if Powell had wanted to protest, the moment for real dissent had long passed, one senior State Department official later reflected. The only argument against invasion that might ever have succeeded -- that it would undermine the larger war on terrorism -- 'would have had to have been made early on,' in the spring and early summer of 2002. It was an argument that Powell had not made. Instead, the secretary had tried to play for time and erect roadblocks to slow the march to war, in hopes that something would stop it. But administration hard-liners, in their hurry to get to Baghdad, had rolled right over him."

DeYoung goes on, "[T]hose who would later cite the January 13 meeting with Bush as a moment when he should have considered resigning on principle misunderstood both his undaunted sense of the possible and his view of the Iraq situation."

These arguments are unconvincing. Despite the claims made by the unnamed State Department source, it is far from clear that an earlier argument that invading Iraq would undermine the war on terrorism would have had any effect. The hawks wanted their war, and it is highly questionable that any arguments would have changed their mind. Second, her statement that Powell's critics "misunderstood" him is beside the point. They understood him well enough -- they just didn't agreewith his actions. What she calls his "undaunted sense of the possible," Powell's critics saw as willful self-delusion.

In one sense, DeYoung's reference to "his view of the Iraq situation" -- i.e., the fact that he shared certain hawkish beliefs -- renders these debates and recriminations moot. Those opposed to the war tend to assume that Powell was on their side, but it isn't that simple. As DeYoung notes, Powell was no dove; he wanted to see Saddam gone, and although he was aware of the risks, he wasn't opposed to a war as long as it was done right. Still, it should have been amply clear to Powell that the war was not being done right -- and he did nothing.

The most glaring omission, not just in this passage but in the book in general, is DeYoung's failure to explore Powell's own awareness, or lack thereof, of how much power he wielded as the most popular and trusted figure by far in the administration. Woodward, in his omniscient style, raises the key issue in "Plan of Attack": "He had not underestimated the extent to which the president had decided that letting the bastard remain was no longer an option. But he probably had underestimated his own usefulness to a president and vice president determined on war."

Woodward's point is that Powell failed to grasp, or did not want to grasp, the power he had as the most trusted and moderate member of the administration. DeYoung never explores this crucial point; in fact, she does not seem to have asked Powell about it. Her portrait of Powell certainly makes clear that everything about the man -- his deference to authority and the line of command, his caution, his unwillingness to break out of what he perceived as the parameters of his role -- made it difficult for him to interject himself into the game in the same way that his peers, Cheney and Rumsfeld, did. But it's an issue one would like to have seen raised with him.

Indeed, "Soldier" would have been a more interesting book if DeYoung had spent less time on the earlier part of Powell's career -- much of which is well chronicled in his autobiography and which yields little insight into this buttoned-down man -- and more on his fateful relationship with the Bush team. It doesn't help DeYoung that her book appeared at the same time as her Post colleague Bob Woodward's "State of Denial," which paints a vivid portrait of Powell's conflicts with his colleagues and contains scoops her book doesn't. For example, Woodward reports that Powell wanted Rumsfeld out, at one point telling White House Chief of Staff Andy Card that "If I go, Don [Rumsfeld] should go." Some of it is a matter of tone: Woodward's book, with its breezier style and rougher edges, creates more of a sense that Powell was aware of the shark pool he was swimming in. This question of Powell's awareness, his personal sense of who he was dealing with, is key: The more aware he was, the less excuse he has for not standing up.

At the end of "Soldier," DeYoung writes, "Political Washington rehashed moments when Powell might have played his ultimate trump card. Perhaps overestimating their own political courage, some moderate Republicans insisted privately that they would have lined up behind him if he had only given them a sign." She then quotes various sources explaining once again why he didn't. "'It's easy for us to say, why didn't he just go in there and tell the president he's going to resign,' reflected one senior State Department official who had thought long and hard about the possibility that Powell would quit. 'But this man was a military officer for thirty-five years. When I go to see the president ... I understand that I voted for the guy and I'll vote for the next guy. That's the great thing about America. He's not the king ... But a military officer who's spent decades saying 'whatever the president of the United States tells me to do I will do because that's an order -- that's different.'"

Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni praised Powell for his ability to stay above the fray of office infighting, but added a darker note: "Powell is a pretty ambitious guy. I don't think it was in him to stop this by bringing down his president."

Powell is a sympathetic character, and DeYoung does a good job of allowing us to see the situation from his perspective. But Zinni's words are a reminder that the obedience of the soldier and the caution of the bureaucrat can also be self-serving -- and prevent one from doing what has to be done. There are higher duties than the military ones, or even the personal codes one lives by.

The tragic irony is that by failing to try to derail Bush's misguided war, Powell betrayed the very people he most wanted to protect: the soldiers. In "Plan of Attack," Woodward characterizes Powell's reaction to his fateful Jan. 13 meeting with Bush. "No way on God's earth could he walk away at that point. It would have been an unthinkable act of disloyalty to the president, to Powell's own soldier's code, to the United States military, and mostly to the several hundred thousand who would be going to war. The kids were the ones who fought, Powell often reminded himself."

Today, almost 3,000 of those kids are dead, many thousands more are shattered in mind and body, the number of dead Iraqis may have passed 650,000 and the U.S. government wants to stay the course for at least four more years. Can Powell still believe that his act of "loyalty" was worthy of the name?

Just what Powell thinks about any of this these days is unclear. In a March 2005 interview with DeYoung, Powell rebuked media reports, "as he put it, that 'Powell must be so distraught.' 'Why am I distraught?' he said testily. 'We are working on our relationships ... look at what we've done with Russia, China, NATO, the E.U.'" And Powell went on to cite his foreign policy successes.

Woodward, in his new book, strikes a different note -- and throws down the gauntlet to Powell far more directly than DeYoung ever does. In an interview with Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., Woodward tells Levin, "I thought Powell was in anguish about what had happened in Iraq, with 130,000 troops still stuck there, facing an ever-growing insurgency.

"'I don't want to hear about his anguish,' Levin said, nearly exploding in anger. 'I don't have the stomach to hear his anguish. He is so smart and his instincts are so decent and good that I just can't accept his anguish. I expected more than anguish.'

"'What did you want?' I asked. 'An apology?'

"'Honesty. I wanted honesty. I don't want to read a year later or two years later that this is the worst moment of his life or something ... Powell had the potential to change the course here. He's the only one who had potential to.'

"'How could he have done that?' I asked.

"'If he had told the president that this is the wrong course,' Levin said. 'I don't think he ever realized what power lay in his hands, and that's an abdication. I think Powell has tremendous power' ...

"'When Bush asked Powell in January 2003 if he would be with him in the war, Levin said, Powell was at the peak of his influence.

"'Can you imagine what would have happened if he'd said, "I've got to give that a little thought"? Can you imagine the power of that one person to change the course? He had it.'"

DeYoung's book confirms what we already suspected about why Powell was not able to rise to the greatest challenge of his life. Like most good biographies, it leaves us with a feeling of inevitability. And in the case of Powell, a decent human being, that feeling is doubly bitter -- for him, and for the country he wanted to serve but ultimately let down.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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