Colin Powell — retired four-star general, national security adviser to Ronald Reagan, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under George H.W. Bush and secretary of state under George W. Bush — had some mildly scolding words for Donald Trump and the Republicans, and for some reason this is supposed to be a big deal.
Speaking alongside fellow former Secretary of State Madeline Albright on October 1 at the New Albany Community Foundation in Ohio, an event hosted by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Powell was gently walked toward an opportunity to criticize both Trump and the party he has so thoroughly subsumed. Powell reared back mightily and lashed out with kitten paws.
“The Republican Party has got to get a grip on itself,” Powell said. “Right now, the Republican leaders and members of the Congress, both in the Senate and the House, are holding back because they are terrified of what will happen to any one of them if they speak out. Will they lose a primary? I don’t know why that’s such a disaster, but will they lose a primary? And so, they need to get a grip, and when they see things that are not right, they need to say something about it.”
Word of Powell’s gentle reprimand first emerged on Sunday, and by Monday morning the news wires were thrumming with seeming import. After all, this is Colin Powell, Respected Man. Corporate news media outlets, still clinging to the idea that the GOP is something other than the bloody mayhem factory it is, love any opportunity to roll Powell out as some sort of last-gasp example of “responsible Republican leadership.” After all, everything was so much better when men like Powell were in government, right?
Powell’s penchant for playing footsie with atrocity dates back more than 50 years. His ability to look the other way when doing otherwise might hamper his career began with the massacre at My Lai, when he whistled past reports of civilians being slaughtered by U.S. forces in Vietnam without tarnishing his own brass-to-be.
Powell was up to his eyeballs in the Iran/Contra scandal but again emerged unscathed, despite having served as top deputy to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who was indicted for his role in the scandal but later pardoned by George H.W. Bush. Powell played out the last bit of the Reagan administration as national security adviser before moving on to the next Republican administration.
While serving as chairman of the joint chiefs, Powell’s endorsement of a more active U.S. military engagement in Somalia toward the end of the first Bush’s lone term led directly to the shootdown of two Blackhawk helicopters in Mogadishu in the summer of 1993. Responsibility for this debacle, later chronicled in the book and film Blackhawk Down, fell squarely on then-President Bill Clinton, who was not pleased at being left holding the bag for the prior administration’s policies in that country.
“Some of [Clinton’s] anger was privately aimed at Colin Powell in a personal pique,” wrote historian David Halberstam in his book War in a Time of Peace. “Talking with reporters in later years, Clinton would often harp on Powell’s role in Somalia, that he had signed on to the partial escalation and yet had accepted none of the blame.”
As chairman of the joint chiefs under the first President Bush, Powell first gained public gravitas as a military man during the 1990 invasion of Panama, which took the lives of thousands of civilians. He went on to famously preside over the first Gulf War, which we are still fighting in various forms some 28 years later. After spending the Clinton administration on the shelf, Powell was welcomed back into the circles of Republican power when he became secretary of state under George W. Bush.
It was at this juncture that Powell’s talent for running through the raindrops without getting wet was most sorely tested. In voluntarily becoming the diplomatic face for the intentions of war-bent neoconservatives like Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, Powell became complicit in one of the most outrageous crimes in U.S. history.
In point of fact, that crime — the invasion, occupation and plunder of Iraq — was profoundly enabled when Powell lent his Respected Man aura to the fiction that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. In the 16 years since he lied to the United Nations and the world about those weapons, millions of people have been killed, maimed or displaced by the war he helped unleash.
My most vivid personal memory of Colin Powell is of that U.N. presentation. Five months earlier, I had come out with a book that thoroughly debunked the Bush administration’s WMD argument for war in Iraq. On that day in February 2003 when Powell addressed the U.N., I was still teaching high school. Finding some time between classes, I rolled the TV cart out into the common room so I could watch his presentation.
Students gathered around me as I watched Powell lie through his teeth on that screen. They were all wide-eyed and fearful, because the last time they had seen the TV cart was at the beginning of the prior school year, on September 11. “Is it another attack?” they kept asking me. “No,” I replied, “but it is probably war.”
The attack known as “Shock and Awe” came the following month, thanks in large part to Powell’s imprimatur of legitimacy. Powell has largely escaped censure for his part in the Iraq debacle; once again, it wasn’t his fault, according to him. His face that day, and the frightened faces of my students as they watched him, will be with me forever. Those kids were watching their futures change for the worse, right there on live television.
This is not merely the story of Colin Powell, one man whose ruthless careerism placed him at the center of power during three Republican presidential administrations. This is also the story of those administrations, and all the lawless Republicans who flowed through them, looting and destroying as they went.
When Colin Powell says, “The Republican Party has got to get a grip on itself,” he is clearly inferring that the Trump administration, abetted by the largesse of congressional Republicans and opinionmakers, is some sort of aberration. This is the pleasant fiction he represents, as if the GOP was some sort of masterpiece society that only became sullied when the bad man from New York City came to town.
Stuff and nonsense. Donald Trump has blown the GOP’s cover. His brutal actions have upended their mythology and exposed the party for what it really is: A greed machine in service to a racist white Wall Street/war power structure whose core blood-soaked morality has not changed in 400 years.
Powell, like so many other Republican “Never Trumpers,” doesn’t criticize Trump for his policies, which are mostly in line with what has been mainstream Republican thinking since Barry Goldwater’s time. Powell doesn’t like Trump because he is bad for the Republican brand, period.
Colin Powell has been living in a glass house since 1968. It’s high time someone shattered it, if only to spare the rest of us the image of yet another Republican war criminal being treated like a Respected Man on television. One Henry Kissinger is enough.