The God that Failed


Adding to Dave's post on Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama, sometimes I wonder if some people have any sort of memory, particularly the journalists now playing up this story as if the messiah had spoken.

That's not to say there is no story here; Powell is a stalwart of the Republican establishment and one of the few, far too few, African-Americans who until now has had a genuinely good chance of becoming president of the United States. My problem is that he is a man on whom the establishment has bestowed the title of foreign policy sage, when in fact he proved to be one of the most mediocre secretaries of state in recent memory, in a field including such nullities as Madeleine Albright, Warren Christopher, and the opportunistic but hollow Condoleezza Rice.

Why on earth do we listen to Colin Powell? When he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff he opposed George H.W. Bush's decision to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait militarily, even though the decision was ultimately a sound one. At the end of his term as chairman he advocated a disastrous U.S. operation in Somalia, contradicting his own near unworkable conditions for overseas intervention, the so-called "Powell Doctrine." As secretary of state under George W. Bush, the first item on his agenda was a botched effort to impose "smart sanctions" on Iraq. Powell visited Damascus to persuade President Bashar Assad to end illicit cross-border trade between Iraq and Syria, which was providing vital economic oxygen to Saddam Hussein's regime. Assad promised Powell he would, then ignored that promise, embarrassing the secretary early in his stewardship.    

There came Iraq. Powell persuaded Bush that he would be able to get international support for an invasion if the administration took the United Nations route to gain Security Council approval for U.S. action. When he couldn't do so, Powell made his now-infamous presentation to the Security Council arguing that the Iraqi regime was developing weapons of mass destruction. The briefing was later shown to be based on false evidence, and Powell has since described the episode as a "blot" on his record. However, Powell was as blameworthy on Iraq as the many other American officials who are routinely lambasted today for the conduct of the war. However, he somehow managed to teflonize himself by repenting. No one blames Colin Powell for the fiasco, though he never contemplated resigning and stayed on in office until 2004, by which time it was clear that he had misled everyone.  

(For those of us who thought the war was worth it, Powell is doubly blameworthy: for making it seem since he left office that we should censure others for the debacle in Iraq, but not be too harsh on Colin Powell; and for never having drawn the right lessons from the first Gulf war, namely that Saddam Hussein merited being removed for no other reasons than his past as a mass murderer and for being a relentless purveyor of Middle Eastern and international instability.)

That is the same Colin Powell now imparting wisdom and advice to voters. He may just get it right this time, for once, with all the evidence suggesting that Obama will win. But notice how the endorsement comes when this outcome seems a dead certainty, when the risks of the endorsement are slight and the potential gains great. Give Powell a 10 for gulling the public once again, and give yourself a zero if you're falling for it.