A Man for all seasons


Since announcing his resignation as Secretary of State on November 15, 2004, Colin Powell has repeatedly been the focus of public attention, criticizing the Bush administration for its conduct of the war in Iraq and the unethical treatment of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

It may be that Powell was asked to resign his position in the first place because of controversy caused by comments allegedly made in a telephone conversation with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, during the summer of 2002 and the build-up to war on Iraq. Powell was reported to have described the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration as “fucking crazies”. The individuals referred to are said to be Vice-President Dick Cheney, Defence Secretary at that time Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz.

This disturbing revelation was reported in the UK Guardian September 12, 2004, with the announcement that BBC journalist James Naughtie had authored a new book in which the conversation was quoted. In his book, “The Accidental American: Tony Blair and the Presidency”, Naughtie also states that Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Prime Minister Tony Blair shared Powell’s concerns. Former British politician and statesman Chris Patten also quotes Powell’s outburst in “Cousins and Strangers: America, Britain, and Europe in a new century”.

In retrospect, a statement such as this being attributed to Powell is no surprise. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Powell was nicknamed “the reluctant warrior” for favouring diplomacy and containment over military intervention. As Secretary of State under George W. Bush, he was considered a moderate Republican who exerted a calming influence over the extreme elements within the administration. Colin Powell advocated continuing economic sanctions and military containment to deal with Iraq. In a press briefing on February 23, 2001, Powell stated: “We should constantly be reviewing our policies, constantly be looking at those sanctions to make sure that they are directed toward that purpose. That purpose is every bit as important now as it was ten years ago when we began it. And frankly they have worked. He [Saddam Hussein] has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction.” Powell went on to say, “Everybody I’ve spoken to understands that this guy [Saddam Hussein] and his regime and his activities present a danger to the region — not a danger to the United States”.


Above: Colin Powell holding a model vial of anthrax while giving a presentation to the United Nations Security Council.

What is surprising, however, is that by February of 2003, the Secretary of State had changed his public stance completely, advocating war against Iraq because it now posed an imminent danger to the world. On February 5, 2003, Colin Powell, perhaps the most respected man in the Bush administration, appeared before the U.N. Security Council in an attempt to garner international support for a multinational coalition to mount an invasion of Iraq. Citing “numerous” anonymous Iraqi defectors, Powell asserted, “There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.” He also stated that there was “no doubt” in his mind that Saddam was working to obtain key components to produce nuclear weapons. Powell said: “My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.” As it happened, the Security Council rejected the evidence Powell presented. The invasion of Iraq itself would demonstrate that nothing Colin Powell had claimed could be proven. No weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq.

In September of 2005, in an interview given to ABC News’ Barbara Walters for “20/20”, Powell blamed lower-level personnel for the misleading information he delivered in his U.N. speech. “There were some people in the intelligence community who knew at that time that some of these sources were not good, and shouldn’t be relied upon, and they didn’t speak up. That devastated me,” he said.

This statement is diametrically apposed to the observations of intelligence analyst Greg Thielmann. Thielmann was a foreign service officer for 25 years. His last job at the State Department was acting director of the Office of Strategic Proliferation and Military Affairs, which was responsible for analyzing the Iraqi weapons threat. He had been in charge of analyzing the Iraqi weapons threat for Powell’s own intelligence bureau.

In October of 2003, Thielmann told 60 Minutes II correspondent Scott Pelley that key evidence cited by the administration was misrepresented to the public. According to Thielmann, Iraq did not pose an imminent threat to the U.S.: “I think it didn’t even constitute an imminent threat to its neighbors at the time we went to war.” Secretary Powell declined an interview for this same broadcast of 60 Minutes II.

Then in July 2007, at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado, Colin Powell contradicted his previous public statements by claiming that he spent two-and-half hours trying to persuade George W. Bush not to invade Iraq. Powell stated, “I tried to avoid this war. I took him [Bush] through the consequences of going into an Arab country and becoming the occupiers.”

Apparently weapons of mass destruction did not figure into Colin Powell’s attempts to dissuade the President from a foreign adventure on Arab soil. If the Secretary of State truly believed that Saddam Hussein had “biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more”, and there was “no doubt” in his mind that Saddam was working to obtain key components to produce nuclear weapons, why on earth would he want to discourage the President from invading Iraq? Why would a loyal American soldier of 35 years jeopardize the security of his country and its allies by counseling such an irresponsible course of action as inaction? Why did Powell not resign his position in Bush’s administration if he felt so strongly?


Loyalty implies a faithfulness that is steadfast, regardless of any temptation to renounce it. One might have wished that such ardent loyalty as that displayed by Colin Powell throughout his career had focused on the United States Constitution as its object of veneration, rather than his colleagues or a particular presidential administration. If that had been the case, perhaps more than 600,000 Iraqi citizens and 2,100 American soldiers would be alive today.

With his retirement from public office, the full extent, implications and contradictions of Colin Powell’s public career seem to be quickly fading from the media’s official memory.


16 Responses to “A Man for all seasons”

  1. OmbudsBen Says:

    It’s an unfortunate consequence of the stress this sorry, pathetic administration is under that moderating influences such as Powell were forced out. As tensions rise the “with us or ag’in us” extremism takes over and the people we need most get booted.

    I recently read a fascinating account of the Coolidge administration, focusing on his “do-nothing” fiscal policy as the economic indicators grew increasingly dire. A conservative idealogue, his absolute belief in his righteousness greatly worsened our economic crash into the 30s.

    He retired a pariah to his hometown in Vermont (even there, his local bank failed); imagine how his most fervent supporters must have felt. I’ve meant to blog on that article and contrast him to the malevolence currently abusing the White House. As different as their roles were/are, I believe Bush II will also live out the rest of his life as an outcast and pariah — and deservedly so.

  2. Sproutsy Says:

    “A Man For All Seasons”is the title of the book wriitten about Sir Thomas More.Unlike Colin Powell,he stuck to his principles no matter what.He went to his grave rather than give in to the hypocrisy that was rampant in his government.However,Colin Powell,the moderate,compromised his principles before finally walking away and washing his hands of everything.So,I think the title of your article on Colin Powell is somewhat contradictory.

  3. Guy Says:

    I chose the title of this blog entry with Sir Thomas More’s political career in mind. He was not free from political contradictions and moral hypocrisy of his own. Despite the romanticized renditions of his death, Thomas More did not go to his death a martyr because he refused to recant his beliefs.

    In 1527, Henry VIII instructed Thomas Wolsey to petition Pope Clement VII for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The Pope refused. Henry reacted by forcing Wolsey to resign as Lord Chancellor and in 1529 appointed Thomas More in his place.

    Henry then began to embrace the Protestant teaching that the Pope was only the Bishop of Rome and therefore had no authority over the Christian Church as a whole. Thomas More initially cooperated and was still loyal to his King and the concept of Royal Prerogative, whatever his personal opinions were. Devoted to Henry, he went as far as to denounce Thomas Wolsey in Parliament himself. As Lord Chancellor, More also had Lutheran Protestants burned at the stake for heresy, the hypocrisy of which should be obvious – he was employed to execute heretics by Henry VIII, who himself was a heretic in the eyes of the Church of Rome.

    It wasn’t until 1530, when More did not sign a petition asking the Pope to annul Henry’s marriage, that his relationship with the King began to sour. Certainly this must have taken great personal courage, considering the times and the common use of capital punishment. Despite More’s qualms regarding the King’s conduct, he loyally soldiered on, taking an oath in 1531 declaring Henry the supreme head of the English Church. Perhaps he was intimidated into taking the oath, fearing for his life. Finally, in 1532, he asked Henry to relieve him of his office due to ill health. By this time I’m sure Thomas More had lost his taste for politics and power, now that he was no longer among the King’s favorites, and just wanted out in order to live the rest of his life in peace.

    More made a mortal enemy of the King by not attending the coronation of his new bride in 1533, even though he had sent written acknowledgement that he recognized Anne Boleyn as the new queen of England and had wished Henry happiness with his new wife. I think Henry was just looking for any excuse by that time to attack Thomas More – the King was pissed off at his former “yes man”.

    Thomas More was found guilty of Treason in 1535 on the strength of perjured testimony presented by Solicitor General Richard Rich, who claimed that More had, in his presence, denied that the King was the legitimate head of the Church of England.

    True, Thomas More had not openly rescinded his belief in Papal Supremacy over matters of faith, but neither did his deny Henry’s authority over the Church of England. To be sure, it was a fine line to be walking in a period of English history dominated by a King who would execute you for any imagined slight. There was a degree of integrity in taking such a stand, but I think that by this time More saw the writing on the wall and knew that he was doomed regardless. There was no point in sucking up to the authorities further, unless they intended to torture him, (which they did not).

    While Colin Powell may not have feared for his life if he had publicly disagreed with the President, (perhaps he did, heheh), both he and Thomas More compromised their personal beliefs in continuing to support their leaders’ conduct they considered to be morally and legally wrong. In fact, both Powell and More facilitated further injustices resulting in the deaths of many people, despite their personal beliefs, before resigning their respective positions in government.

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