American dream

On 12 April 2003, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld hosted a cocktail party in Washington to celebrate the US ‘victory’ over Iraqi forces. Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and representatives of the coalition revelled in the knowledge that they had proven the world wrong. Conspicuously absent was Colin Powell. Queried on the matter a State Department official replied: ‘No, people here didn’t know about that party.’ And so began Powell’s fall from grace.

It has been said that it is better to be respected than feared. Before the Iraq war Powell had no shortage of respect in Washington. Touted as a potential president, Powell’s career is a true rags to riches story. Speaking in 1995 on the release of his autobiography, My American Journey, Powell told audiences that ‘this is a story of a black kid of no early promise from an immigrant family of limited means who was raised in the South Bronx and somehow rose to become National Security Advisor and then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’. And subsequently, Secretary of State. Like Clinton, he embodies the American dream. Powell’s career continued on its upward trajectory until the Iraq war.

In a cabinet largely dominated by neo-conservatives, Powell was an unusual choice. His selection was reflective of the high esteem Powell is held in by many in Washington. His name gave Bush’s cabinet an air of credibility and prestige. Unlike others in the Bush administration Powell served in Vietnam—and won a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his service. Powell has opposed most American military adventures. This is not because he is a peacenik but he argued that in most conflicts there were ‘unclear purposes’ with no clear ‘exit strategy’. These are the lessons he learnt from Vietnam. Not that American power is inherently evil—a conclusion that many deduced from Vietnam—but rather that American power should be used in a scrupulously calculating way. It is somewhat surprising then that he became a public face for the war by going to the UN.
Some have questioned why Powell went to the UN. In light of his 35-year career in the army—where there is no higher good than loyalty—it is more than understandable. Powell showed a soldiers’ loyalty to his superior. Apparently, Bush never asked Powell explicitly what he thought of going to war. As a loyal deputy Powell never volunteered an opinion. Privately, he was more questioning. ‘You break it, you own it,’ he told Bush and Cheney with regard to Iraq. A statement that is only beginning to resonate in foreign policy circles at the White House.

Since the cocktail party in April 2003 Powell has been brought in from the cold. However, his reputation has been tarnished. Powell’s visit to the UN to present what always appeared questionable evidence was done at great political risk to his career. Before this time, Powell was widely respected in Washington and around the world. Powell’s original stance cautioning enthusiasts has been validated by recent events. The Defense Department are becoming increasingly aware of their limitations. While it may be able to win wars it is unable to win peace—something Secretary Powell’s department is much better equipped for. If Vietnam taught the US one thing it is the limitations of military force.
Whether Powell will be re-appointed or retire—resigning would damage the Bush administration—is yet to be seen. Regardless of this, Powell is unlikely ever to enjoy again the high esteem in which he was held before the Iraq war. Perhaps against his better judgment, Powell hung his career on a politically risky war. For this he has paid dearly.




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