by Ron Chepesiuk
Toward Freedom, Fall 2003
Bush's "Teflon" secretary has
built his career on playing it safe
In the controversy over the half truths
and outright lies about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, one
top US official has remained above the fray. Yet, it was Secretary
of State Colin Powell, darling of the US media, who made the key
February 5 presentation to the United Nations that most persuasively
outlined the US argument for war.
Then came the revelation: the Bureau of
Intelligence and Research (INR), the State Department's Intelligence
Analysis Unit, along with experts from the Department of Energy,
had advised Powell that the evidence he planned to use, supposedly
proving that Saddam Hussein intended to re-start a nuclear weapons
program, was "questionable." The ever dutiful servant
of power proceeded away, making the dubious case for invasion.
As usual, much of the US media gave Powell
the benefit of the doubt. After all, he's a dove, right? A voice
of moderation, struggling to survive among the hawks in the Bush
administration? A headline published by USA Today the day after
Powell's UN speech graphically illustrated the media's crush:
"Case is stronger when biggest dove makes it."
Given all this, can we really expect the
mainstream media to take the gloves off and do some hard investigative
reporting on the Powell-intelligence connection? It's a big story,
but don't hold your breath.
If Powell had used his authority and stature
to treat the "intelligence" information as he reportedly
described it in private ("bullshit" was the precise
phrase), the relentless push to war might have sputtered, or at
least slowed down long enough for some rationality to reemerge
in the formation of US foreign policy. Imagine the impact if the
Secretary of State, the official with more credibility than any
other Bush official, had said "I can't present this garbage
to the world. Take it out or I'll resign."
But he didn't. Instead, he presented blurry
photographs to make the administration's case. Powell's message
to a skeptical world audience Trust me when I say Saddam is trying
to re-start his nuclear weapons program.
Six months later, he admitted what many
have been saying for more than a year: that he won't remain at
the State Department even if President Bush is re-elected, According
to the Washington Post on August 4, however, his official reasons
for leaving are personal, not any differences over foreign policy.
Not since Ronald Reagan more than 15 years
ago has the US seen someone like Powell -a "Teflon"
statesman. The day after his UN speech, journalist Norman Solomon
wrote on the website of Fairness and Accuracy in Media (FAIR),
a US-based media watch dog group, that "there is no doubt
about it. Colin Powell is a great performer, as he showed yet
again at the UN Security Council. On television, he exudes confidence
and authoritative judgment. But Powell owes much of his touted
credibility to the fact that he is functioning inside a media
bubble that protects him from direct challenge."
FACILITATING COVER UPS
For Solomon and other journalists who
manage to shield themselves from the strong glare of the Powell
charisma, the Secretary of State s performance at the UN was a
deja-vu experience. He may look like a dove, talk like dove and
walk like a dove, but a review of his career reveals that he's
as hawkish as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, or other leading
figures in the Bush league.
Consider his combat record. Clearly a
war hero in Vietnam, he received two Purple Hearts, including
one for saving comrades from a burning helicopter. But the image
of the reluctant warrior who believes in using force only as a
last option is shattered by Powell's own words. In his autobiography,
My American Journey, Powell reveals that he saw nothing wrong
with the common Vietnam War practice of firing a machine gun burst
from a helicopter in front of any Vietnamese peasant who looked
"really suspicious." Defending his view, Powell wrote,
"If he moved, his movement was judged evidence of hostile
intent, and the next burst was not in front of him. Brutal? Maybe
so. The killed-or-be-killed nature of combat tends to dull fine
perceptions of right and wrong."
Writing about his first tour in Vietnam,
Powell also defended the US military practice of applying Zippo
lighters to the britches of Vietnamese civilians. As FAIR points
out, "When journalists who yearned for Colin Powell read
his memoirs, they took almost no note of Powells strong lack of
compassion when civilians were dying."
This is not the philosophy of a dove.
As for "perceptions of right and wrong," there's his
connection to one of Vietnam's most infamous incidents-the My
Lai Massacre. Writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Christopher
Hitchens charged that "as a staff major in Vietnam, Colin
Powell played a direct role in suppressing the inquiry into the
My Lai massacre and related atrocities against civilians."
The accusation that he played a "direct
role" remains debatable, yet there is solid evidence he did
nothing to help expose some of the abuses that led to the killing
of hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians. In researching their
book, Four Hours in My Lai, British journalists Michel Bolton
and Kevin Sim discovered a letter in the National Archives in
Washington, DC from Tom Glen, a young US soldier who had served
in Vietnam Written in November 1968, it was addressed to General
Creighton Abrams and described how some US soldiers were abusing
Vietnamese civilians and captured Viet Cong suspects.
In 1996, Robert Perry and Norman Solomon
described the letter in FAIR's publication EXTRA. "Glen's
overall complaints encompassed some of the atrocities later dubbed
'The My Lai Massacre' (which had occurred on March 16, 1968),"
they wrote. "Though Glen made no specific reference to My
Lai, he expressed deep concern about American troops who 'without
provocation or justification shoot at the people themselves'."
When Glen's letter landed on Powell's
desk, he did a quick investigation, but didn't interview the soldier
and dismissed his charge as unfounded. In a memo dated December
13, 1968, Powell wrote: "In the direct refutation of the
portrayal is the fact that relations between
American soldiers and the Vietnamese people
are excellent." Case closed.
This wasn't the only time Powell's image
could have been challenged by the mainstream media-if only it
was willing. In 1995, for instance, when Powell was being discussed
as a potential candidate for President, embarrassing allegations
leaked out about his role in the Iran-Contra affair. Oliver North
apparently kept Powell fully informed about the arms for hostages
negotiations. When Congress asked about the affair, Powell claimed
he couldn't remember. Another case closed.
THE COMPANY HE KEEPS
Questions have also been raised about
Powell's military leadership and competence, especially in waging
the first Gulf War and handling the 1993 military disaster in
Somalia. But professional competence doesn't really matter, if
you're adept at networking and willing to adjust your views to
support the current position of your sponsors.
A number of influential Republicans, including
George Bush, Sr., Dick Cheney, Richard Armitage, Casper Weinberger
and Frank C. Carlucci, have helped Powell move up the career ladder.
Based on his status a protégé of Bush Sr., Powell's
detractors have labeled him an "SOB" (Son of a Bush).
Let's look at some of the movers and shakers
who have taught Powell the political ropes. Casper Weinberger,
under whom Powell served in the Office of Management and Budget
(OMB), was pardoned by Bush, Sr. for his role in the illegal Iran-Contra
affair. Carlucci, Weinberger's assistant in the OMB, was accused
of supervising the CIA plot that led to the assassination of the
Congolese president Patrice Lumumba.
Five months after Lumumba's death, Carlucci
was expelled from the Congo. Four years later, he was expelled
again, this time from his CIA post in Tanzania. In that case,
he was accused of trying to assassinate the Burundi Prime Minister
Richard Armitage, whom Powell called "my
brother and my bodyguard" in his autobiography, was accused
of moving heroin from the Golden Triangle to the Golden Crescent
so it could be used against Russian troops in Afghanistan. In
his book Called to Serve, Colonel James "Bo" Gritz,
a former Green Beret, alleged that Armitage was a close confidant
of Khu Sa, the legendary Golden Triangle heroin trafficker. Today,
Armitage is Powell's top aide in the State Department.
As for Dick Cheney, whose cozy connection
to Big Business is well known, a Federal court is currently considering
a lawsuit that charges he misled investors while an executive
at Haliburton Company, a multi-billion dollar oil-service company.
Haliburton, of course, is now profiting from Iraq's post-war reconstruction.
Powell's detractors also charge he has
been given an easy ride throughout his career due to his skin
color. This is controversial talk in "politically correct"
times; you can't be too critical of a media darling who happens
to be black without risking accusations of racism. Yet some black
leaders aren't impressed with the man many call a perfect role
model for young African Americans.
During a November 2002 radio interview
in San Diego, for example, Harry Belafonte slammed Powell as a
sell out to the black race. Belafonte pointedly compared Powell
to a plantation slave, adding that "when Colin Powell dares
to suggest other than what the master wants to hear, he will be
turned back to pasture."
But don't bet on that happening soon.
A careful but ambitious man, Powell has been compared to the popular
general and president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. If the Bush administration
needs some extra cover during what may yet become an Iraq War
scandal before the next election, it will no doubt call again
on their faithful servant to make the case.
Ron Chepesiuk is a Fulbright scholar and
Visiting Professor of Journalism at Chittagong University in Bangladesh.
His latest book, The Bullet or the Bribe: Taking down Colombia's
Cali Drug Cartel, will be published this October