Sunday, August 28, 2011

Remembering a Fourth Member of the Axis of Incompetent

On twitter, I was snarky about Colin Powell being upset about the shots he receives from Cheney in the lame-athon that is Cheney's memoir.   Basically, I noted that Powell was finally getting upset, when the time for that was about eight years or so ago.  Too little, too late.  Powell does not quite get as much of my wrath for being a part of the worst US foreign policy team in history™, compared to Rice, Rumsfeld and the Cheney machine, as I don't think of him as the worst Secretary of State ever.  There are far more SecStates (going back 220 years or so), so I would have to do significant research to figure it out.  

James Joyner, the managing editor at Atlantic Council, and blogger, pushed back:
  • that Powell was a former soldier who respected the chain of command above all else.  
  • that Powell was merely the representative of the President
  • that Powell had mixed accomplishments.
First, when Powell was a soldier, specifically as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he went public with his opposition to gays in the military at a time where Clinton could have at least used a silent Chairman if not one opposing him in public.  So, one could argue that gays in the military would be somehow more important and requiring more insubordination than invading Iraq without a plan, but that would be, well, problematic.  Plus there is another problem--a good soldier puts country above individuals and individual leaders, and the folks near the top of the command have a greater responsibility to consider the actions being taken.  The Iraq decision-making process was a disgrace, damaging the US in a great many ways.  Powell, once he realized that he could not beat Rumsfeld, ran away and hid, essentially.  If he could not fight the big decision, he had to win the process decisions to make sure that the damage was minimized.  But he did not.

Second, Powell had to represent Bush policy, but a Secretary of State is supposed to do more than that.  Cyrus Vance was a representative of a pretty lame president (one of the best ex-presidents ever), fighting regularly with folks who opposed his ideas (Zbig Brzenski among others).  Vance was able to shape policy, even when losing debates, and represented the US well even at difficult times.  Powell stood before the UN and the world, "representing" the US with a pack of lies.  One could say that he didn't know better, but he did spend about thirty years in the military consuming intelligence.  So, naive he was not, at least about intel.

Third, Powell might have had a mixed record of accomplishments, but nothing positive comes to mind.  Certainly nothing that offsets the Iraq fiasco.  Kissinger is a nice comparison here, since he made both excellent and spectacularly bad decisions, so his record is mixed.  Detente, opening to China versus abetting invasion of Cambodia, negotiating badly with the Soviets on SALT, and so on.  That is a mixed record, which suggests good and bad of similar heft.  I am sure we can find some good things Powell did, but other than being the first African-American secretary of state, did any of these have any heft?

I actually thing the biggest mistake Powell made was his very first non-decision.  Let's think back to the winter of 2000-01 when the Bush team was being put together in the aftermath of a contested election.  Powell was the first big person to join the team, well, after Cheney had picked Cheney to be VP.  Powell had heaps of gravitas then (I am now tempted to chant O-VER-RAY-TED, but will refrain), and should have made his acceptance on the team conditional--that he would have a veto over the choice of Secretary of Defense.  In any administration, those two positions are natural rivals (except Gates/Clinton--who would have thunk that?), so Powell should have been careful about who got the other spot.  Rumsfeld was clearly going to be heaps of trouble.  Perhaps Powell should have pushed to be Secretary of Defense, which might have led to a Bolton-esque person as SecState?  Yes, this is a bit more hypothetical, but allowing a Rumsfeld as his primary adversary was  a huge mistake that no one seems to consider.  Yes, Rummy was Cheney's man, but the administration, at this fragile time, really needed Powell.  He had no more power than at that moment in time.  What did he get with that leverage?  Really? Anyone?  Anyone?  Bueller?

I could go on, but my power may go out again (Montreal's power infrastructure is better than its roads, perhaps, but that ain't saying much). 

I guess I am very, very disappointed in Powell for two reasons.  A) I had reasonably high expectations.  B)  I have been in enough academic departments where the truly dysfunctional people are allowed to do heaps of damage precisely because folks with some power stand aside.  I know that I probably lost at least one job interview when I mentioned that I would not stand aside if I saw evil being done.  I perhaps have not always followed through on that vow (not an unbreakable one apparently), but I have used whatever power I have to help those who have been harmed by the dysfunctional folks.  Powell had power and he did not use it.  So, he ultimately enabled the worst SecDef, the worst National Security Advisor, and a very bad VP to make awful policies that damaged the US abroad and at home. The truly damning thing is that, by all accounts, he knew how bad these policies were at the time.

Let me know what you think: how responsible is Powell?  What good did he do?  Was the symbolic advancement of African-Americans enough to overcome the disaster that he facilitated?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We easily forget that we talk about war here. Not a minor policy issue. Many people died. So anything short of resigning and speaking truth to power (publicly or just internally) was just pathetic. And also not very manly, given the "he was an accomplished soldier" rhetoric.