It’s a terrible paradox in the life of Colin Powell, who died Monday, that the most important moment of his celebrated career came not when he led troops under fire in Vietnam, or when he orchestrated the successful expulsion of Iraqi invaders from Kuwait in 1991, or when he became the nation’s first African American national-security adviser and Secretary of State.
It came, instead, on the dais of the United Nations Security Council, in 2003, when Powell, who was then Secretary of State, made the case for the invasion of Iraq, based on the conclusion that Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, and thus had to be removed by force. The enduring image from that moment is Powell holding up a tiny vial of white powder, which stood for what was supposed to be Saddam’s anthrax, and, mortgaging his esteemed reputation and all the credibility of the U.S. government, telling the world that the U.S. had no choice but to go to war. “My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources,’’ Powell told the Security Council. “What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”
Of course, as the country discovered painfully over the next several months, the super weapons allegedly possessed by Saddam were no more real than a desert mirage, and the “solid intelligence” put forward by Powell that day turned out to be mostly conjecture and supposition, based on recycled reports from Iraqi defectors, who had their own motives. The weapons of mass destruction turned out not to be there, but a hundred and sixty-five thousand American troops already were, and the catastrophic occupation of Iraq that followed brought to an ignominious end a singular moment of American global dominance and prestige, which Powell had done so much to bring about.
The tragedy was personal, too. Powell was arguably America’s most celebrated soldier, who, in surviving Vietnam and helping to rebuild America’s shattered military, had appeared to learn its principal lesson—to avoid foreign occupations at all costs and to go to war only when it was absolutely unavoidable. The Powell Doctrine, as it came to be known, held that the United States, when it must go to war, would do so only with overwhelming military force sufficient to destroy an enemy and bring about a quick end to hostilities: No more Vietnams. Powell summed up his military world view at the beginning of the Gulf War, in 1991, when he described what he was planning to do to Saddam’s army in Kuwait: “First we’re going to cut it off, and then we’re going to kill it.” And he did. It is a harsh irony of Powell’s career that he cashed in so much of his credibility on America’s misbegotten return to Iraq a dozen years later.
What happened that day at the U.N.? Powell did not talk about it much, but his friend and confidant Lawrence Wilkerson did. In an interview around the height of the Iraq War, in 2006, Wilkerson, who had been Powell’s chief of staff, told me that Powell had been deeply suspicious of the George W. Bush Administration’s efforts to push the country into war, and that, when he was tapped to make the case for the invasion at the United Nations, he insisted on vetting the evidence himself. In the lead-up to the presentation in New York, Powell and Wilkerson huddled with the nation’s top two intelligence officials at the C.I.A. headquarters—the agency’s director, George Tenet, and John McLaughlin, his deputy—to review the evidence that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. The four men spent several days in Tenet’s office, with Wilkerson, a former platoon commander in Vietnam, sleeping on the office couch. At the end of the session, Powell and Wilkerson came away sufficiently confident that the case for war was solid. “We had three or four sources for every item that was substantive in his presentation,” Wilkerson told me.
What Powell later learned, Wilkerson said, was that the “three or four” independent sources for the intelligence often turned out, in many cases, to be only one—a source brought to the intelligence agencies of the United States or one of its allies by the Iraqi National Congress, the opposition organization headed by Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi exile who had gained the trust of senior officials in the Bush Administration and had convinced them of the necessity of destroying Saddam’s regime. Powell discovered that the story of one I.N.C.-sponsored defector, codenamed “Curveball,” had been made to appear as though it had come from multiple sources. As Wilkerson put it, “A lot of these sources sort of tinged and merged back into a single source, and that inevitably that single source seems to be either recommended by, set up by, orchestrated by, introduced by, or whatever, by somebody in the I.N.C.”
Such an orchestration, it should be said, could only have reasonably been accomplished with the help of senior officials in the U.S. government—in the White House, intelligence agencies, and elsewhere. Wilkerson told me that he suspected that Tenet and McLaughlin had been warned off the shaky intelligence by German allies, but that they had used it anyway, without warning Powell. We know, in fact, that Tenet was under enormous pressure from the White House, where President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney had seemingly already made up their minds about invading Iraq, to come up with a solid case to publicly justify the decision.
In other words, Powell was used. Bush, Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, who was then the Secretary of Defense, cynically enlisted him and his enormous credibility to make the flimsy, and ultimately faulty, case for war. As Powell recounted to one of his aides, according to Robert Draper, the author of “To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq,’’ Cheney had said to him, “You’re the most popular man in America. Do something with that popularity.”
And so Powell did. Draper makes clear that Powell harbored doubts about the invasion of Iraq from the get-go. Powell might have resigned before the March 2003 invasion; if he had done that, he would have almost certainly have delayed the invasion, or scuttled it entirely. But, in the most fateful decision of his career, Powell chose to remain what he always aspired to be: the good soldier.
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Colin Powell’s Fateful Moment