Colin Powell: Still Craven After
All These Years
by Norman Solomon
Newspapers across the United States and
beyond told readers Wednesday about sensational new statements
by a former top assistant to Colin Powell when he was secretary
of state. After interviewing Lawrence Wilkerson, the Associated
Press reported he "said that wrongheaded ideas for the handling
of foreign detainees after Sept. 11 arose from a coterie of White
House and Pentagon aides who argued that 'the president of the
United States is all-powerful,' and that the Geneva Conventions
AP added: "Wilkerson blamed Vice
President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and
like-minded aides. Wilkerson said that Cheney must have sincerely
believed that Iraq could be a spawning ground for new terror assaults,
because 'otherwise I have to declare him a moron, an idiot or
a nefarious bastard.'"
Such strong words are headline grabbers
when they come from someone widely assumed to be speaking Powell's
mind. And as a Powell surrogate, Wilkerson is certainly on a tear
this week, speaking some truth about power. But there are a few
big problems with his zeal to recast the public record: 1) Wilkerson
should have spoken up years ago. 2) His current statements, for
the most part, are foggy. 3) The criticisms seem to stem largely
from tactical critiques and image concerns rather than moral objections.
4) Powell is still too much of a cagey opportunist to speak out
Appearing on the BBC's "Today"
program Tuesday, Wilkerson said: "You begin to wonder was
this intelligence spun? Was it politicized? Was it cherry-picked?
Did, in fact, the American people get fooled? I am beginning to
have my concerns."
So Wilkerson, who was Powell's chief of
staff from 2002 till early this year, has started to "wonder"
whether the intelligence was spun, politicized, cherry-picked.
At the end of November 2005, he was "beginning" to have
"Beginning to have my concerns"
is a phrase that aptly describes the Colin Powell approach.
Overall, appearances remain key. And
so, Wilkerson included this anecdote in his AP interview: "Powell
raised frequent and loud objections, his former aide said, once
yelling into a telephone at Rumsfeld: 'Donald, don't you understand
what you are doing to our image?'"
Now there's a transcendent reason to begin
to have concerns: Torturing prisoners is bad for "our image."
Rest assured that if the war had gone
well by Washington's lights, we'd be hearing none of this from
Powell's surrogate. The war has gone bad, from elite vantage points,
not because of the official lies and the unrelenting carnage but
because military victory has eluded the U.S. government in Iraq.
And with President Bush's poll numbers tanking, and Dick Cheney's
even worse, it's time for some "moderate" sharks to
carefully circle for some score-settling and preening.
In its account of Wilkerson's BBC appearance,
the British Guardian newspaper reported Wednesday: "Asked
whether the vice president was guilty of a war crime, Mr. Wilkerson
replied: 'Well, that's an interesting question -- it was certainly
a domestic crime to advocate terror and I would suspect that it
is ... an international crime as well.' In the context of other
remarks it appeared he was using the word 'terror' to apply to
the systematic abuse of prisoners."
Strong stuff, especially since it's obvious
that Wilkerson is channeling Powell with those statements. But
Powell was a team player and a very effective front man for the
administration that was doing all that politicizing and cherry-picking
-- and then proceeding with the policies that Wilkerson now seeks
to pin on Cheney as possible war crimes.
White House war makers deftly hyped Powell's
"moderate" credibility while the Washington press corps
lauded his supposed integrity. Powell was the crucial point man
for giving "diplomatic" cover to the Iraq invasion fixation
of Bush and Cheney. So, typically, Powell proclaimed three weeks
into 2003: "If the United Nations is going to be relevant,
it has to take a firm stand."
When Powell made his dramatic presentation
to the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, he fudged, exaggerated
and concocted, often presenting deceptions as certainties. Along
the way, he played fast and loose with translations of phone intercepts
to make them seem more incriminating. And, as researchers at the
media watch group FAIR (where I'm an associate) pointed out, "Powell
relied heavily on the disclosure of Iraq's pre-war unconventional
weapons programs by defector Hussein Kamel, without noting that
Kamel had also said that all those weapons had been destroyed."
But the secretary of state wowed U.S. journalists.
Powell's televised U.N. speech exuded
great confidence and authoritative judgment. But he owed much
of his touted credibility to the fact that he had long functioned
inside a media bubble shielding him from direct challenge. It
might puzzle an American to read later, in a book compiled by
the London-based Guardian, that Powell's much-ballyhooed speech
went over like a lead balloon. "The presentation was long
on assertion and muffled taped phone calls, but short on killer
facts," the book said. "It fell flat."
Fell flat? Well it did in Britain, where
a portion of the mainstream press immediately set about engaging
in vigorous journalism that ripped apart many of Powell's assertions
within days. But not on the western side of the Atlantic, where
Powell's star turn at the United Nations elicited an outpouring
of media adulation. In the process of deference to Powell, many
liberals were among the swooners.
In her Washington Post column the morning
after Powell spoke, Mary McGrory proclaimed that "he persuaded
me." She wrote: "The cumulative effect was stunning."
And McGrory, a seasoned and dovish political observer, concluded:
"I'm not ready for war yet. But Colin Powell has convinced
me that it might be the only way to stop a fiend, and that if
we do go, there is reason."
In the same edition, Post columnist Richard
Cohen shared his insight that Powell was utterly convincing: "The
evidence he presented to the United Nations -- some of it circumstantial,
some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail -- had to prove
to anyone that Iraq not only hasn't accounted for its weapons
of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only
a fool -- or possibly a Frenchman -- could conclude otherwise."
Inches away, Post readers found Jim Hoagland's
column with this lead: "Colin Powell did more than present
the world with a convincing and detailed X-ray of Iraq's secret
weapons and terrorism programs yesterday. He also exposed the
enduring bad faith of several key members of the U.N. Security
Council when it comes to Iraq and its 'web of lies,' in Powell's
phrase." Hoagland's closing words sought to banish doubt:
"To continue to say that the Bush administration has not
made its case, you must now believe that Colin Powell lied in
the most serious statement he will ever make, or was taken in
by manufactured evidence. I don't believe that. Today, neither
On the opposite page the morning after
Powell's momentous U.N. speech, a Washington Post editorial was
figuratively on the same page as the Post columnists. Under the
headline "Irrefutable," the newspaper laid down its
line for rationality: "After Secretary of State Colin L.
Powell's presentation to the United Nations Security Council yesterday,
it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses
weapons of mass destruction."
Also smitten was the editorial board
of the most influential U.S. newspaper leaning against the push
for war. Hours after Powell finished his U.N. snow job, the New
York Times published an editorial with a mollified tone -- declaring
that he "presented the United Nations and a global television
audience yesterday with the most powerful case to date that Saddam
Hussein stands in defiance of Security Council resolutions and
has no intention of revealing or surrendering whatever unconventional
weapons he may have."
By sending Powell to address the Security
Council, the Times claimed, President Bush "showed a wise
concern for international opinion." And the paper contended
that "Mr. Powell's presentation was all the more convincing
because he dispensed with apocalyptic invocations of a struggle
of good and evil and focused on shaping a sober, factual case
against Mr. Hussein's regime."
Later, in mid-September 2003, straining
to justify Washington's refusal to let go of the occupation of
Iraq, Colin Powell used the language of a venture capitalist:
"Since the United States and its coalition partners have
invested a great deal of political capital, as well as financial
resources, as well as the lives of our young men and women --
and we have a large force there now -- we can't be expected to
suddenly just step aside."
Now, after so much clear evidence has
emerged to discredit the entire U.S. war effort, Colin Powell
still can't bring himself to stand up and account for his crucial
role. Instead, he's leaving it to a former aide to pin blame on
those who remain at the top of the Bush administration. But Powell
was an integral part of the war propaganda machinery. And we can
hardly expect the same media outlets that puffed him up at crucial
times to now scrutinize their mutual history.
This article includes an excerpt from
Norman Solomon's new book "War Made Easy: How Presidents
and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death." For information,
go to: www.WarMadeEasy.com