Brooke Gladstone: This week, we lost a remarkable American statesman.
Speaker 1: Politician, diplomat, four-star General, Colin Powell, has died of COVID-related complications.
Speaker 2: He was 84 years old.
Brooke: Powell served in multiple Republican administrations, shaping American foreign policy.
Speaker 3: That's one of those passings that feels like the loss of a family member. General Powell has been a part of public life for all of mine, basically, and maybe yours. In many ways, he felt like a familiar figure.
Brooke: Colin Powell was many things to many people, a symbol of the American dream, the public voice, for a time, of the Iraq War, a so-called RINO or Republican In Name Only, a good soldier. Though widely remembered as a barrier-breaking hero by folks across the aisle, in his death as in his life, there are those who used Colin Powell as an opportunity for scoring political points.
Tucker Carlson: Like almost everyone his age, Colin Powell was fully vaccinated against COVID, and yet, according to his family and doctors, Colin Powell died of COVID. Of course, that fact does not make his death any less sad, nor is it unusual. Many thousands of vaccinated Americans have died of COVID. What does that tell you exactly? It tells you you've been lied to.
Brooke: Tucker Carlson conveniently omits the important fact that Colin Powell has been sick for years with multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer. Looking back at the life of Colin Powell, it's worth recalling that he was looked upon with favor among 85% of Americans, according to a 2001 Gallup poll.
Clarence Page: Colin Powell rose up in the '90s to prominence at a time when we really needed some Black heroes.
Brooke: Chicago Tribune columnist, Clarence Page.
Clarence Page: The man seems almost too good to be true, but we want him to be true. He is a guy who fits the role. He has an unblemished record, wonderful family life, worked his way up, immigrant family, you name it. He is an iconic figure, larger than life. When people tell me, whether they like Powell's politics or not, they just can't get enough of him.
Brooke: I interviewed Clarence Page for a segment we did on Colin Powell back in 2004. At the time, he had just gone on NBC's Meet the Press and admitted that the evidence for Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction just wasn't there.
Clarence Page: Turned out that the sourcing was inaccurate and wrong and in some cases deliberately misleading.
Brooke: A little over a year earlier, Powell had been tasked by the Bush administration with presenting the evidence against Saddam Hussein to the UN Security Council.
Colin Powell: What you will see is an accumulation of facts and disturbing patterns of behavior. The facts and Iraq's behavior demonstrate that Saddam Hussein and his regime have made no effort to disarm as required by the international community. Indeed, the facts and Iraq's behavior show that Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction.
Brooke: Fred Kaplan, a veteran reporter on foreign policy and national security and longtime writer of Slate's War Stories column, had long acquaintance with Powell as a figure and a policymaker. He joins me now in my home office, which is about a dozen yards from his home office, since we're married. Why don't you start by telling me how you felt when you read that Colin Powell had died?
Fred Kaplan: I guess, like a lot of people, surprised. I didn't know that he had myeloma cancer. I guess that's really what caused his death, that, plus COVID.
Brooke: Take your time. This show, you may not know, is heavily edited.
Fred Kaplan: I do know. [chuckles] Where do you want me to go with this?
Brooke: I want to know how you personally felt.
Fred Kaplan: I knew him a bit. I wouldn't say we were friends. I interviewed him several times. He was a complicated figure in public life.
Brooke: You had a correspondence?
Fred Kaplan: We had a correspondence. There are a few four-star generals that I've known who, when I write something critical of them, they've written or called me to complain about it. Powell said, in his letter, something like, "You must have been on a tight deadline because this isn't as convincing as some of your criticisms of me," which it's a very seductive thing.
It's saying, "Oh, he's criticizing me, but oh, he's read other things that I've written too." It's a backhanded compliment. It's a fairly transparent way of getting you to come over to his side. Somebody did that to me when I was much younger and more naive about this sort of thing. I was amused that Powell, who was very politically adroit, would be pulling this maneuver.
Brooke: I think it's clear that there's no end to the vanity of journalists. I'm sure he guessed right more often than not. You admired him.
Fred Kaplan: I admired him to some degree, but then, of course, there was his fatal act.
Brooke: Let's talk about the way he grew up.
Fred Kaplan: He was the son of Jamaican immigrants. Was born in Harlem, worked his way up. In high school, he worked for some, I think a baby furniture store owned by some Jewish guys in the Bronx and learned Yiddish, fairly fluently I think, actually. In fact, it's funny when he met Yitzhak Rabin, he goes up and starts speaking Yiddish to him and is surprised that Rabin doesn't speak Yiddish. For a leading Israeli Jew, they want to leave the ghetto behind, and Yiddish is certainly part of the ghetto, so he wouldn't have known Yiddish. He goes into the army, rises through the ranks. He was a grunt in Vietnam.
He was just an enlisted man, a soldier in the rice paddies. He becomes a corps commander in Europe, he becomes Reagan's national security adviser, then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. All through this, I knew him a little bit from the time he was national security adviser, retaining a fairly "normal disposition." You could talk to him, or he would talk to you the way a real person would talk to you, not some stuffy general. When he was national security adviser, I was a reporter for The Boston Globe. I was a defense reporter for The Boston Globe. He went and gave a talk to a bunch of grade school kids in a very Black part of Washington, DC.
It was kind of inspiring. He was introduced by five or six Board of Education people, a few of whom kept referring to him as a Lieutenant Colonel, when in fact, he was a Lieutenant General. Then he gets up and he says to the kids, "Okay, some people say, I was a Lieutenant Colonel, I'm a Lieutenant General. Generals give orders. Now, come on down here, closer to the stage where I can talk to you." Then he starts, "I work in the White House, you've probably seen that. When you go by the White House, the part that's in the west part of the building, I'm in that part of the building. How did I get there?
I grew up in a neighborhood very similar to yours, but then I learned you have to learn how to speak properly. You have to read. You have to really study." He was really giving them a-- I was very impressed. I said, "God, this guy could really go someplace." I wasn't surprised when, at some point, briefly, he considered running for president, in I think 1996. He was a Republican. He probably wouldn't have made it through even then Republican Party primary, he was too liberal for the Republicans, even then. I also remember seeing him speak at some Republican convention. I forget if it was '96 or 2000. I remember thinking, "If I really thought this guy represented what Republicans stand for, I could see voting for a Republican now and then."
Brooke: Why didn't he run for President?
Fred Kaplan: The story I heard, and this has been acknowledged as part of the reason, is that his wife was terrified that some racist would assassinate him and just said, "You are not going to run for president." She was very insistent about it. She might have been right.
Brooke: There's a moment, he said, would basically be a blot on his record forever. He said it was painful. Talk about the run-up to and the impact of his presentation on weapons of mass destruction at the United Nations.
Fred Kaplan: Let's set the context a little first. George W. Bush names him as Secretary of State, a decision that is met with universal acclaim, everywhere, internationally, among Democrats here [unintelligible 00:09:17] just hitting it out of the ballpark.
Brooke: He was far more popular according to the polls than Bush was.
Fred Kaplan: Oh, yes. Bush came into office with no experience in foreign policy. Cheney and Rumsfeld had their own blots from previous associations with Nixon and so forth. Powell is like an unimpeachable guy, Secretary of State, and he comes in, he has so much confidence. He's speaking with just an air, he thinks he's going to be running the show. Then--
Brooke: At least his show.
Fred Kaplan: Yes, foreign policy. He's going to be the man on foreign policy, and since Bush really doesn't know very much about foreign policy, the US voice in the world is going to be his voice. He's thinking this. Then, almost from day one, he discovers himself being outmaneuvered by the tag team of Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who had very different ideas about the world than he did and who had been tag-teaming since the Nixon administration, so he's sidelined.
Brooke: Give me examples.
Fred Kaplan: Almost the first thing that he says is that, "Yes, we will be resuming President Clinton's nuclear negotiations with North Korea," which had actually made some progress, but Clinton administration ended and it was still in flux. Condi Rice, National Security Adviser, calls him up and says, "We are going to be doing no such thing. You have to backpedal on this in public." He called a press conference said, "Well, I got a little ahead of my skis." He had basically to eat shit. He had to take it back.
That was step number one, then anything to do with arms control, Cheney installed as Powell's Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control, John Bolton, whose main job was to report back to Cheney everything that Powell was doing on arms control, and to try to sideline it or sabotage it in one way or another. Every time there was a National Security Council meeting, Powell maybe won the argument, Cheney would go into Bush's office afterwards and get it reversed. One of the first things the Bush administration did was to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Powell very much argued against doing that, but he lost. He kept losing.
There was an interesting side effect, and this has been overlooked in a lot of coverage about him. On issues where Cheney and Rumsfeld really didn't care, Powell actually exerted a tremendous amount of influence. For example, in the fall of 2001, India and Pakistan were really set to go to war with each other, and Powell did some shuttle diplomacy, and really calmed it down. He prevented war between India and Pakistan. Cheney and Rumsfeld let him because they didn't really care. [chuckles]
Also, in China, when China shot down a US spy plane, there are tremendous tensions rising between US and China. This was at a time when there really were no tensions and he went over there and not only calmed that situation down, but articulated a very pragmatic policy toward China. Again, Rumsfeld and Cheney, they were focused on Russia and North Korea, and Iran and Iraq, so they didn't care about that. When he was given a free hand, he actually showed what maybe he could have done on other areas where he wasn't given a free hand.
The Iraq war is gearing up. It's clear that it's going to be happening. Powell is against it. He articulates to Bush, the Pottery Barn rule, you break it, you own it. In other words, we go to war with Iraq, it's going to shatter into a million pieces, and you're responsible for all of it, to no avail. He's the one guy in the administration against it. He does force Bush to take the issue to the UN, which Cheney did not want to do.
Cheney, not a big fan of international law, and things like this, and there's quite a lot of opposition, or at least skepticism about this war effort internationally and domestically, too. Cheney comes up with the diabolical idea. "Let's have Colin make the case for invasion to the UN Security Council." Because if Powell could make a case, a lot of the reason why it would work, if it did work is because Powell was making the case. He'd say, "Well, Colin's not making up stuff here. This is real stuff."
Powell was handed a script, and he said, "No, this is nonsense. I'm not going to read this. This is crap." He goes to CIA headquarters, camps out there for days, going over everything, crossing out stuff that he doesn't think is valid, and leaving in stuff that he thought was valid, and goes to the UN Security Council, and made, to many people, what seemed like a plausible case for invasion. Now, what we didn't know until later, was that almost everything he said was not true.
Brooke: Did he know that?
Fred Kaplan: No, I don't think he did. He was bamboozled. The book by Robert Draper, To Start a War, which was a very good book on the origins of our involvement in Iraq, notes that there were people in the CIA who could have told Powell that all the claims that were in the document that he was reading from were either false or at least dubious, or at least that there was another opinion about it.
This was not a unanimous or even consensus opinion, but they were deliberately left out of the room. George Tenet, CIA director, had this view which is accurate, that basically the CIA works for one customer, the President of the United States, and the President doesn't trust you or doesn't listen to what you're saying, you might as well not even be in business.
Brooke: Can we recall that the CIA was suspect enough for Cheney and Rumsfeld to create their own private intelligence service?
Fred Kaplan: No, that's true. Initially, the CIA was reluctant. Cheney would say, "Look, I think that Iraq has links to Osama bin Laden, or Iraq is developing weapons of mass destruction." They would look at it and say, "I don't see that here." So Rumsfeld created his own intelligence unit inside the Pentagon, and then there was another one in the White House. Basically, they just came up with the most frightening scenarios possible, and it was fine if it just seemed plausible. They weren't looking for truth. They were looking for--
Brooke: Narratives, as we like to say on the show.
Fred Kaplan: Yes. George Tenet was determined to tell George Bush what George Bush wanted to hear, which was that yes, there are ties to Al-Qaeda and he's developing weapons of mass destruction. There were CIA analysts who could have told Powell, "Well, there's only about a 30% chance that what we're saying here is true," but they were not allowed into the room.
Powell didn't even know that these opinions, and in some cases, they were minority opinions which emerged as correct, but he didn't know that they even existed. He was finagled into this position by Cheney and then bamboozled. Now, something against Powell though, here. One of the minority views on a lot of these issues which turned out to be right were held by the State Department's own intelligence unit, the Intelligence and Research Bureau. He did not rely on them. I don't think he even consulted them much.
Brooke: His own division?
Fred Kaplan: Yes, so that's on him.
Brooke: He gave the speech and the substance of it was what and what was the impact?
Fred Kaplan: There were a few parts of it. He showed drawings of what he called a mobile biological weapons vehicle.
Colin Powell: Here we see cargo vehicles are again at this transshipment point, and we can see that they are accompanied by a decontamination vehicle associated with biological or chemical weapons activity.
Fred Kaplan: Which could be seen roaming around in Iraq, which apparently built biological weapons. He held up the vial of what substance they were supposedly making.
Colin Powell: Ladies and gentlemen, these are sophisticated facilities. For example, they can produce anthrax and botulinum toxin. In fact, they can produce enough dry biological agent in a single month to kill thousands upon thousands of people, and dry agent of this type is the most lethal form for human beings.
Fred Kaplan: They found one of the guys who was on that phone conversation and what turned out to be the case was that this was a chemical weapons site that had been decontaminated after the 1991 Gulf War by the disarmament arrangements that ended that war. What this was, they wanted to make sure before the inspectors came, that back when they decontaminated this place in 1991, that they didn't leave anything behind, that it really was clean. They didn't want to be falsely accused that they were violating any agreement now, so they weren't clearing the place out days ahead of time. They were confirming that it had been cleared out more than a decade ago. A completely different interpretation of what happened.
Brooke: He changed a lot of minds. He changed your mind.
Fred Kaplan: Yes, a lot of people who had been skeptical, so it served its purpose. They said, "Well, this is making a pretty good case." I have to admit, for about two weeks, I was among those people. I had written columns in Slate, skeptical of the case for war, and then, after that presentation, I wrote about two columns which really I was kind of gung-ho on invading. I decided, Powell is the main reason for this happening. Let me just interrupt and say about two weeks later, still a couple of weeks before the invasion, I changed my mind. I was learning things that a lot of what's in the speech was not true, or it didn't make sense, and even if it did, it wasn't really a rationale to go to war so I changed my mind back.
Brooke: You also thought the government wasn't--?
Fred Kaplan: There are some statements made by Bush. He was told by somebody, "After the war, you're going to have to do something to make peace between the Shiites and Sunnis." He was like, "What?" So I I wrote a column saying, oh, Christ, there's going to be a civil war afterwards. There is going to be insurgency. We don't have any means to settle this. We're getting into a huge embrouiller.
Brooke: We're not going to be able to fix what we broke. The Pottery Barn--
Fred Kaplan: We're going to make it worse. We're going to go in there with a hammer. Powell did have an impact on some people, including some in the UN, which was what it was aimed at. It was way later that he learned that he had been bamboozled, but here's where we get into the tragic part of Colin Powell, because okay, he was bamboozled. First, he'd been around, he should have taken these things with a little more grains of salt.
Ultimately, he was a good soldier. He was looking for ways to be a team player. This was the way. By the end of Bush's first term, he leaves office because he realizes he's lost all power within the administration, and even outside of the administration. To his counterparts in Europe, they liked him. They respected him, but he would come over and he would say things and they would realize, "Well, that's Colin and I like Colin. I agree with him, but I don't get any feeling that he's representing the President of the United States. That's what I'm interested in."
Bush would start sending over Condi Rice or even Jim Baker, his father's secretary of state because then people would say, "Okay, well, this is in effect, the President of the United States talking." Powell didn't have that position anymore, so he left. Then the thing I have a problem with him, and a lot of people do, is that he didn't say anything after that for several years. The run-up to the invasion, even given his UN speech, privately, he was still opposed to invasion. He personally did not see any of this as grounds for invasion. If he had resigned in protest, which, granted, very few US officials, much less four-star generals do.
He wasn't a four-star general then, he was secretary of state, but he still saw himself as a general. Anyway, if he'd resigned in protest, that would have had a tremendous impact in the United States and among allies who were still kind of wavering on whether or not to go along with Bush in this war. It could have stopped the war. If he had said something after leaving office, the war was still raging.
This was 2004. I think it could have had an impact on Congress, on some allies on the state of the war. He was asked by Robert Draper, again, the author of this book, To Start a War, Why didn't he do it? He goes, "Look, what choice did I have? He was the President of the United States." See that's the view of a general who has been inculcated with a view of civilian authority, you should pay attention to civilian authority. You should carry out all lawful orders.
Brooke: There's a view of a good soldier.
Fred Kaplan: It's the view of a good soldier. Usually, we should be happy about that. We don't want generals going around making policy. They're not the policymakers. However, there is a flip side to this military ethos, which is branded into every officer from the time he's a cadet. That is you carry out the order or you resign. That's a legitimate option. You're not being a turncoat or a traitor by resigning. Some have resigned, not very many though. Not very many. Officers are so steeped in the ethos of civil authority. We don't want coups. We don't want MacArthurs. They don't pay attention to the flip side of this is that, "Well, there is a way out. I can just leave."
That would have had a tremendous impact and he didn't do it. I wrote a story in 2006 for the LA times called Colin Powell, Nowhere Man, because he kind of disappeared and the few public things that he went on, he was on the Jon Stewart show once. Stewart, of course, had been very critical of the Iraq war. He didn't push Powell on this heavily, but he asked questions that gave Powell an opening to go down that road. By this time, Bob Woodward's book, Plan of Attack had come out in which Powell, who clearly was a major source was thinking or saying that the war was really a bad idea, that Cheney had the fever for war.
He was saying these things privately, he was saying the things on background, but he just didn't go there at all. He would say, "Well there are disagreements in every administration. The president makes a decision and he's a great guy. He and Laura were over at the house just last week for dinner." Again, I would be less critical if he had just said nothing to anybody, but it was known that he was saying these things privately or on background.
When it came to the point where he could have actually had an impact on life, I mean hundreds of thousands of lives, he didn't take that step. I understand why he didn't take that step. He was not that kind of guy, and most military officers for better or for worse, and by the way, usually for better, are not that kind of guy. This was a moment when he could have played a truly historic role and he backed away from it.
Brooke: At the end of your column, you said, "He had a marvelous life."
Fred Kaplan: I think I said, "He had a wonderful life." [unintelligible 00:25:47]
Brooke: He had a wonderful life, but it fell short of a decisive one.
Fred Kaplan: Yes. I think that's right. Look, he accomplished a great deal. I've talked with people who've worked for him and they always said it was fun to work for him. He paid attention to the people working for him. He would listen to subordinates. He would make them feel like they are a part of his team. In retirement, he collected cars and worked on their engine. Then after he left office, he did a lot of charity work. He founded a public policy Institute at City College of New York, which was his Alma mater.
Brooke: He worked with children at risk.
Fred Kaplan: Yes, absolutely. Another thing is there's some people in positions like his who are Black, who say, "Well I happened to be Black. I would prefer to be treated as a general, not a Black." No, he was the exact opposite. He says, "People say that I'm the first Black chairman of joint chiefs or the first Black secretary of state. Yes, I want to play up that fact. I'm proud of that fact. I want it to be noted." At one point when Jesse Jackson was running for president, Powell was in an administration, Jackson called Colin Powell for advice on defense issues, and he answered the questions.
I remember Powell was once on Face the Nation or something like that. Somebody said, "Now, Jesse Jackson thinks such and such about defense. Do you agree with that?" Powell said, "You're trying to get me to criticize him and I'm not going to do that." He endorsed Obama in the 2008 election over John McCain, who was an old friend of his. It really pissed off McCain. There were some reasons not having to do with Obama, that Powell didn't endorse McCain, but then he endorsed Obama again.
In fact, he's endorsed nothing but democratic presidential candidates since though he never quite became a Democrat. Though he, especially when Trump came to identify the Republican party, he moved away from it pretty drastically. I see now that Trump put out a statement, really disgusting calling, "Oh, well, he caused the Iraq war and he's just a RINO, but rest in peace I guess." Something like that. That's why I said he had a wonderful life, but there was one moment when he could have had a decisive life, and he didn't go there.
Brooke: What, in your definition, determines a decisive life?
Fred Kaplan: Well, if you're someone in his position, secretary of state is number three in presidential succession. You're within whispering range of the President of the United States, the top officer in the United States military.
Brooke: Then top officer in foreign policy.
Fred Kaplan: Or top diplomat. Top diplomat, top officer. Decisive means you're in a position to cause a pivot in the annals of war and peace. He was there. He was in that position to do that. There was a moment really not very many people in that position to have that opportunity and he did, and he didn't swing at it.
Brooke: Thank you very much, Fred.
Fred Kaplan: Thank you.
Brooke: Fred Kaplan is the author of The Bomb, Dark Territory, The Insurgents, 1959, Daydream Believer, The Wizards of Armageddon. Writer of Slate's war stories column since 2002, and husband to me since 1983. [unintelligible 00:29:18] for the big show this week. It's posted usually on Friday around dinner time. If you haven't done it yet, you should sign up for our very cool weekly newsletter. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.