Jake Chessum’s picture of former Secretary Powell
for the Newsweek piece [which I think is rather weird]
Former Secretary of State and General Colin Powell has been cropping up in the news weeklies in recent days, in advance of his new book (which I would very much like to read). There were a couple of articles in particular I thought were interesting, so I thought I’d tease out some key points and interesting observations. The articles are from TIME magazine (as part of their last-page “10 Questions” series – May 28th 2012, p.70); and from Newsweek, in which Powell wrote a piece about the George W. Bush Administrations decisions and actions with regards to Iraq. Both are quite interesting, with the Newsweek piece obviously more substantial and informative.
That being said, if you’ll indulge me a segue before I get on to the main point, the former Secretary did comment on whether or not he thought Congressional leaders were staying too long in office: “We need people who know how the system runs, but it really is not necessary to stay there for an entire career.”
Anyway, back to the Newsweek article and my comments.
THE INVASION OF IRAQ
Powell starts off explaining that he “had no doubt that our military would easily crush a smaller Iraqi army”, but that he was particularly “concerned about the unpredictable consequences of war”, and mentions that the plans in existence at the time of the decision “confidently” suggested that Iraq was expected to “somehow transform itself into a stable country with democratic leaders 90 days after we took Baghdad”, an assertion Powell says he believed was “unrealistic”, sure it would be a “longer struggle.”
Much has been written about the post-invasion take-over of Iraq (really, the take-over of Baghdad and its immediate surrounding areas, and even then not completely). But to read Powell’s recollection is pretty damning.
“In the days, weeks, and months after the fall of Baghdad, we refused to react to what was happening before our eyes.”
One of the most famous images from the start of the Iraq Invasion
There’s no doubt the vast majority of the Iraqi people were glad to see Saddam Hussein gone from power.
“But they also had lives to live and families to take care of. The end of a monstrous regime didn’t feed their kids; it didn’t make it safe to cross town to get to a job. More than anything, Iraqis needed a sense of security and the knowledge that someone was in charge... of keeping ministries from being burned down, museums from being looted, infrastructure from being destroyed, crime from exploding, and well-known sectarian differences from turning violent.”
American forces wisely chose to focus on “expanding oil production, increasing electricity output”, which would have gone a long way to helping generate a national income and also the means to power services and so forth. Good idea. But why on Earth did they also focus on “setting up a stock market”? (Emphasis mine.) That seems to me like a lunatic objective for a country that doesn’t have functioning electricity grids, schools, serviceable roads, or public safety infrastructure. Who on Earth thought that a stock market should be a priority? Add to this the fact that the implementation of the stock-market plan was given to a 20-something new graduate, and it’s no wonder it ended up a mess. “These were all worth doing,” Powell writes, “but they had little meaning and were not achievable until we and the Iraqis took charge of this post and secured all property in view.” I still don’t think anyone should have been discussing the importance of a stock market for years to come.
Before the invasion, the president approved a plan to not break up and disband the Iraqi Army. Instead, Powell writes, the plan asked for “the reconstituted Army with purged leadership to help us secure and maintain order throughout the country.” The ruling Baath Party would be dissolved (good idea), but the idea was not to throw every party member out on the street:
“We were planning to eliminate top party leaders from positions of authority. But lower-level officials and workers had the education, skills, and training needed to run the country.”
However, when the chips were down and the US took control of Baghdad, “The plan the president had approved was not implemented.” Instead, Powell writes, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Ambassador L. Paul Bremer
“disbanded the Army and fired Baath Party members down to teachers. We eliminated the very officials and institutions we should have been building on, and left thousands of the most highly skilled people in the country jobless and angry – prime recruits for insurgency.”
Not surprisingly, Powell reports, these actions “surprised the president, National Security Adviser Condi Rice, and me”. However, rather than exercising the authority of the office of the President of the United States, “once [the plans] had been set in motion, the president felt he had to support Secretary Rumsfeld and Ambassador Bremer.” Why? They were insubordinate! They went against his orders – it was his responsibility to take Rumsfeld and Bremer to task for this. So much for being the “Decider in Chief”...
THE IRAQI W.M.D. SPEECH TO THE U.N.
“There is nothing worse than a leader believing he has accurate information when folks who know he doesn’t don’t tell him that he doesn’t.” Powell admits that he found himself in trouble “on more than one occasion because people kept silent when they should have spoken up.” His speech at the U.N. on February 5th 2003 about Iraqi WMD programs is now one of the most infamous Bush-era distortions and, Powell readily admits, “was not based on facts, though I thought it was” at the time.
The “biological-agent production facilities mounted in mobile vans” was the real problem for Powell, as he spent some time in the speech highlighting their existence and potential for war. He had been “assured that the information... was multiple-sourced and solid,” only for the mobile-van story to fall apart almost immediately after the speech was over. Incredible – still, and despite how often it has now been written about – is the fact that not a since person working in the intelligence operation had ever actually talked to the single “Curveball” source, because “our intelligence people considered [him to be] flaky and unreliable”. The fact that nobody checked with the single source, not to mention the fact that few people considered him reliable, plus the fact that there weren’t more sources, and the fact that “a number of senior analysts were unsure whether or not the vans existed” is quite unforgivable. Powell is clearly disappointed that the analysts and operative had “big don’t knows that they never passed on”, but at the same time I can’t help wondering why he didn’t ask for more evidence. He’s clearly a man of conviction, conscience and ability, so why didn’t he insist on more evidence from sources that weren’t considered “flaky and unreliable”. This was a couple of years after 9/11, so there wasn’t the “fog of war and confusion” that is so often blamed for the mistakes of 2001 and early 2002. “Some of these same analysts later wrote books claiming they were shocked that I had relied on such deeply flawed evidence,” Powell states. Indeed, but I think this is a case of shared responsibility and fault. I would agree that it was more theirs for not speaking up louder (screaming “but Curveball’s a fraud” would certainly have been noticed, methinks).
“It takes courage” to go against policy momentum, Powell says, attempting to convey a certain understanding on the analysts for not speaking up. “[E]specially if you are standing up to a view strongly held by a superior or to the generally prevailing view, or if you really don’t want to acknowledge ignorance when your boss is demanding answers.” So, effectively, the analysts and intelligence operatives were spineless imbeciles.
“The leader can’t be let off without blame in these situations. He too bears a burden. He has to relentlessly cross-examine the analysts until he is satisfied he’s got what they know and has sanded them down until they’ve told him what they don’t know.”
Unfortunately, while this is the correct sentiment, I can’t help thinking that something made Powell not follow his own advice and dictums at that time. “The leader should never shoot the messenger. Everybody is working together to find the right answer. If they’re not, then you’ve got even more serious problems.” I can’t really tell what he was attempting to achieve or convey in this section. At times it felt like the message was “mea culpa, but look how these other guys messed up as well so don’t blame it all on me!”
He gave a far more succinct comment to TIME magazine for the “10 Questions” feature, when he said, of the UN speech,
“I feel bad about any loss of life on either side of the conflict, but I think it was a justified decision based on what we knew at the time. I did it, and as I say in the book, I had to move on. I was still Secretary of State. I couldn't go in a corner and go fetal.”
ABU GHRAIB & TORTURE
“In 2003 American soldiers and interrogators in charge of Iraq prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad subjected prisoners to horrendous abuse, torture, and humiliation. Their actions were shocking and clearly illegal.”
After the incidents were reported and the soldiers in question were suspended, Powell said that “the machinery” of military justice was working, but it failed at an important step: “The pipes leading up to the senior leader were never turned on.” This meant those in leadership positions – Secretary Rumsfeld, for example, and the White House – were never informed of the incident and were left unaware “that a bomb was about to go off”. At this stage, the ball was most definitely fumbled, and the Army fucked up.
“Leaders should train their staffs that whenever the question reaches the surface of their mind – ‘Umm, you think we should call someone?’ – the answers is almost always, ‘Yes, and five minutes ago.’ And that’s a pretty good rule for life, if you haven’t yet set your woods on fire.”
Not mentioned in the Newsweek article is the fact that Powell was absent from discussions on torture and detainee treatment policies (he was away in Asia). It’s probably just from a different section of the book, but I’m surprised it wasn’t included in the Newsweek essay just for the sake of completeness. Nevertheless, Powell did talk to TIME magazine about it when they asked him, and he replied:
“There were some things that took place with respect to interrogation and detention policies that didn’t get full discussion and maybe would have had I been there.”
THE POTTERY BARN RULE
Interestingly, on the “Pottery Barn Rule”, the idea that “if you break it, you own it”, Powell told TIME magazine that the phrase was actually coined by a newspaperman, despite his using the phrase “if you break it, you own it”. The former Secretary also pointed out that the rule doesn’t exist in Pottery Barn, and joked, “Go break whatever you want. You don’t have to pay for it. I didn’t say that.”
The Newsweek article is a nice, long piece by an experienced diplomat and civil servant. It’s well-worth reading, as I think will his book be (the article is free online, so I would definitely recommend you head over to read it – thankfully something Newsweek has retained, despite the other decline in quality of its reporting and choice of articles).
It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership will be published on May 22nd 2012 (Harper).
I would also highly recommend Powell’s first book, My American Journey (1995), which I thought was excellent and proved extremely useful for my PhD research. It’s also very well written – a rare thing in some academic circles.