THE GREAT AMERICAN JOURNEY OF COLIN LUTHER POWELL
By Femi Olugbile
It was necessary to give the story of the death of Colin Luther Powell some distance before attempting to think about the man, in order to clear the air and allow emotions to settle.
The Powell story is more than the sum of its many parts. Soldier, statesman, writer, philosopher, and yet a man who had been born in an age when his parents could not have received service at a ‘white’ lunch counter or used the toilet in a segregated mall in many parts of the United States of America.
It was surreal how Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom, of all people, was the first person to draw your attention in her public speech to the existence of a man named Colin Powell. He was then the National Security Adviser to her friend President Ronald Reagan. She spoke of how much she was impressed by the man’s brilliance and authority. Of course, the special relationship between Reagan and Thatcher was the stuff of legend.
Powell would rise to the dizzy zenith of the American military and State Department, mostly under Republican administrations, first with Ronald Reagan, then George W Bush the Senior, then Bill Clinton, and finally George W Bush the Junior. He would become the first black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the first black man to be Secretary of State. He would go into history for several landmark achievements so edifying that they once made him a credible potential candidate to follow the tradition of Eisenhower and go from Army General to President of the nation, at the same time becoming the first African-American President.
In the annals of Warfare, for all the years to come, Powell will be known as the enunciator of the Powell Doctrine, which states, inter alia, that a great nation, faced with an external foe, should first establish that there is a real threat to national security, then meticulously exhaust non-violent options. Having decided on military action, it should set itself clear, attainable objectives, evaluate the risks and costs of the planned action, and device a plausible exit strategy. Having satisfied itself on all of these measures, it should then hit the enemy with overwhelming force and ‘kill it’. Oh – and it should always seek to mobilise public support and a broad international consensus.
Unfortunately having raised the bar of War by putting the Powell Doctrine in the public space, and having led a gushing President George Bush Senior to demonstrate its effectiveness in Operation Desert Storm, he allowed himself to stumble and become the poster boy for precisely the type of military behaviour that the Powell Doctrine warns great nations against, a war that did not tick the boxes of constituting a convincing threat to national security, a war where no clear objectives had been set except the removal of a sitting President, no matter how venal, and a war where there was no plausible exit strategy. When a reluctant world stood undecided on the brink of the disastrous war against Saddam, Colin Powell, now Secretary of State, at first tried to slow his hawkish colleagues UCH as Dick Chiney and Donald Rumsfeld in the cabinet of Bush Junior down. And then having got lumbered with faulty intelligence that he swallowed hook, line and sinker.
‘It is a slam-dunk case’ he announced before the United Nations. Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that he was waiting to unleash on the world. America had to act, fast, along with her allies.
It was a big lie, which he had been sold, either willfully, or inadvertently, by the CIA and the other arms of Intelligence, a lie which he, the most credible figure in the America of the day, was required to sell to justify the war America and her allies were about to embark upon. Its fallout was a devastating blow to him as a person, and to all that he stood for.
He would do many worthy things later, but deep in his soul, he felt he had let himself down. The thought would come up repeatedly in his talk and his writing and would haunt him to the end of his days.
Colin was the son of Jamaican immigrants, born in the Bronx. The man who at the end of his day would be a universal epitome of polish and good breeding attended public school, not Ivy League institutions. He lived an unremarkable life until he joined the Army, where he found his métier.
He would spend thirty-five years in the military, becoming a four-star General. Everybody he met along the way would be impressed with his mien and his ability, and he would hold a succession of high-level positions. National Security Adviser to Ronald Reagan. Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff under George Bush Senior and Bill Clinton. Secretary of State under George W Bush Junior. Even those who disliked him admitted he had gravitas, and that he was a figure of inspiration and admiration for young and old, and a prototypical leader.
His ‘Thirteen Rules for Leaders’ were employed in teaching Emotional Intelligence in Business Schools.
‘It ain’t so bad as you think. It will look better in the morning’ – says one of them.
‘Get mad, then get over it’ – says another.
‘Be careful what you choose. You may get it’ – goes a nugget.
And the mind can glean the decisiveness of the philosopher-warrior who in the crucial moment will not flinch from risking it all on a battlefield hunch.
‘Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers’.
A great man. An ‘Establishment’ man, who carried no placards and led no demonstrations. Not a rebel or a radical, like the typical ‘black’ leader. If anything, a man of conservative bent, staking out a claim for the black man even in conservatism.
In his life, Colin Luther Powell showed what was possible for everyone in America, and what a talented second-generation scion of black immigrants could do if he had an abundance of self-belief and an unshakable resolve to pull himself up by the bootstraps.
May his soul rest in peace.