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A Reluctant Warrior? An Examination of Gen. Colin Powell’s Bloody Legacy from Iraq to Latin America

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We look at the life and legacy of Colin Powell, who is best known for giving false testimony to the U.N. Security Council in 2003 about nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, paving the way for the U.S. invasion and occupation that would kill over 1 million Iraqis. Powell, who was the first Black secretary of state, the first Black and youngest chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first Black national security adviser, died on Monday due to blood cancer and Parkinson’s disease that left him vulnerable to infection from COVID-19. Tributes poured in from top U.S. leaders in both Republican and Democratic circles on Monday, but in other parts of the world Powell is remembered very differently. We speak with journalist and author Roberto Lovato, and Clarence Lusane, activist, journalist and political science professor at Howard University. Lusane describes Powell as “a complicated political figure who leaves a complicated legacy” whose public image was “in conflict with many of the policies of the party he supported and the administration in which he was involved.” Assessing Powell’s role in U.S. invasions around the world, from Vietnam to Central America, Lovato says “he’s made a career out of being a good soldier and supporting U.S. mass murder around the world, but evading the credit for it.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden ordered flags at the White House to be flown at half-staff in honor of General Colin Powell, who died Monday at the age of 84. Powell was the first Black secretary of state, the first Black and youngest chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first Black national security adviser. On Monday, tributes poured in from both Republican and Democratic leaders. President Biden called Powell a, quote, “patriot of unmatched honor and dignity.”

But in other parts of the world, Powell is remembered very differently. In Iraq, the journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi, who famously threw a shoe at President George W. Bush, tweeted that he was sad Powell had died before being tried for his crimes in Iraq. While serving as secretary of state under Bush, General Powell played a pivotal role in paving the way for the U.S. invasion. It was February 5th, 2003, that Powell addressed the United Nations Security Council and made the case for a first strike on Iraq. Powell’s message was clear: Iraq possessed extremely dangerous weapons of mass destruction, and Saddam Hussein was systematically trying to deceive U.N. inspectors by hiding the prohibited weapons.

SECRETARY OF STATE COLIN POWELL: One of the most worrisome things that emerges from the thick intelligence file we have on Iraq’s biological weapons is the existence of mobile production facilities used to make biological agents. Let me take you inside that intelligence file and share with you what we know from eyewitness accounts. We have firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails. The trucks and train cars are easily moved and are designed to evade detection by inspectors. In a matter of months, they can produce a quantity of biological poison equal to the entire amount that Iraq claimed to have produced in the years prior to the Gulf War.

AMY GOODMAN: All of Colin Powell’s main claims about weapons of mass destruction turned out to be false. He later described the speech as a “blot” on his record.

But the 2003 speech was not the first time General Powell had falsely alleged Iraq had WMDs. In 1991, during the Persian Gulf War, the U.S. bombed Iraq’s only baby formula factory. At the time, General Powell said, quote, “It is not an infant formula factory. … It was a biological weapons facility, of that we are sure,” he said. Well, U.N. investigators later confirmed the bombed factory was in fact making baby formula.

While many in Iraq consider Powell to be a war criminal, just like they consider George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, Powell has long been celebrated at home. Colin Powell was born in Harlem in 1937. His parents had both immigrated from Jamaica. He was educated in public schools, including City College of New York, before he joined the military through ROTC. He served two tours in Vietnam. He was later accused of helping to whitewash the My Lai massacre, when U.S. soldiers slaughtered up to 500 villagers, most of them women and children and the elderly. While investigating an account of the massacre filed by a soldier, Powell wrote, quote, “In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent,” he said.

Powell spent 35 years in the military, rising to chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the 1980s, he helped shape U.S. military policy in Latin America at a time when U.S.-backed forces killed hundreds of thousands of people in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and other countries. Powell also helped oversee the U.S. invasion of Panama and the Persian Gulf War.

From 2001 to 2005, he served as secretary of state under George W. Bush. After working under three Republican presidents, General Powell made headlines in 2008 when he endorsed Barack Obama for president just two weeks before Election Day. Earlier this year, General Powell said he no longer considered himself a Republican, following the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

General Colin Powell died on Monday. His family said he died from COVID-19 complications. He was struggling with both Parkinson’s disease and multiple myeloma, which left him severely immunocompromised.

To talk more about Powell’s life and legacy, we’re joined by two guests. Roberto Lovato is with us, award-winning journalist, author of Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas. He has closely tracked General Powell’s history in Latin America. We’re also joined by Clarence Lusane, professor at Howard University. He’s author of many books, including Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice: Foreign Policy, Race, and the New American Century.

Professor Lusane, let’s begin with you. If you can talk about the legacy of Colin Powell?

CLARENCE LUSANE: Thank you, Amy. And thank your other guests.

So, Powell leaves a very — he was a complicated political figure who leaves a complicated legacy. As you outlined in your introduction, Powell has a rise-from-the-bottom story that really captured the imagination of many people. He rose from growing up in poor areas, or at least low-income areas, in New York to become fourth in line to president, when he became the secretary of state.

In the early 1990s, he was championed by both Democrats and Republicans and recruited by both to run for president. He declined in 1995. And when he declined, he announced that he was joining the Republican Party. Now, the Republican Party he joined in 1995 was the Republican Party of Newt Gingrich, and it did not seem to be a fit. Colin was pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, pro-immigration, called for gun control, all of which the Republican Party, under Newt Gingrich and going forward, have been against.

As you point out, he joins the George W. Bush administration, the very first choice, in fact, of George W. Bush for his Cabinet because Powell has the international gravitas and respect that nobody else in and around George W. Bush has. But he never really fit in. And in the first eight or nine months of the George W. Bush administration, Powell lost fight after fight after fight when Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and others, who were what we call the neoconservatives, the neocons, were really running the administration. And there was a pretty good bet that Powell was not going to last until the end of the year. But then September 11 happens. Powell, always the loyal soldier, decides to stay, but he’s still very isolated. He says that they basically saw him as a milk carton. They put him in the refrigerator, and when they needed him, they would bring him off the shelf, and then they would put him back. They brought him off the shelf in 2003 to talk at the U.N. because there was no one else in the administration who could get the attention and at least some belated respect. And Colin Powell went and gave that talk, which was, from A to Z, false. But he was the only one in the administration, and then, of course, a year and a half later, he’s gone.

But he’s complicated because, in many ways, he did not fit in with the Republican Party, even though he did not leave until early this year. But he increasingly, and anyone who was a moderate, and particularly Black moderates, simply had no place in the Republican Party. And so, he endorses Obama, he endorses Biden, he endorses Hillary Clinton — or at least he votes for them. So he really had moved and been moved out of the Republican Party for many years. But he really wasn’t a Democrat or seen as a progressive, either, again, because of a long history of aggression internationally, going all the way back to Reagan and the Contras and all of the foreign policy controversies of the 1980s, and then under the Bush administration, which not only included Iraq but also included the Bush policies towards Cuba, towards Venezuela, their policies around Africa, all of which increasingly isolated Colin Powell from the progressive communities.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Professor, I wanted to ask you, in terms of the need for both the Democrats and the Republicans to repeatedly lionize and hold up General Powell especially, but then as Secretary of State Powell, as a key and important American figure, given the fact that the U.S. military — of all the institutions in American society, none is more racially diverse, it seems to me, than the U.S. military, with about 40% or more than 40% of the troops as people of color. So, could you talk about the importance of Powell as a figure, given the demographics and the changes in the American military?


So, part of the capital that Colin Powell bills is precisely because he rises up to the top of an institution, one of the few that had not seemed to be tainted by political partisanship, and he rises up and becomes the head, becomes the head of Joint Chiefs of Staff. And Powell’s personality is not a belligerent one, one that we have, unfortunately, come to see more and more in military figures and political figures, and Powell’s activism relative to addressing issues of race. So, when we think of the conservative African Americans who are in and around the Republican Party — the Clarence Thomases, the Candace Owens — those types tend to come to mind. But there were African American conservatives who took positions that were supportive of issues related to the Black community and were active and supportive of civil rights. So, Powell fits into that, and so that gave him some cachet. He spoke at my graduation at Howard University in 1994 and talked about issues of racism, issues of being socially engaged. You’re not going to find that coming from virtually any of the people we think of as Black Republicans these days. So, that gave Colin Powell a different kind of public-facing image, which was in conflict, again, with many of the policies in the party that he supported and in the administration in which he was involved.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to also bring in Robert Lovato into the discussion. And, Roberto, I’m wondering if you could talk especially about — people forget that back in the invasion of Panama that not only was Colin Powell a key figure, but that the secretary of defense at the time was Dick Cheney.

ROBERTO LOVATO: Yeah. Thank you, Juan and Amy. I’m glad to be back with you.

The story of Colin Powell in Central America and other parts of the world is what I would call a tragic tale of militarism in the service of declining empire. And it also previews what I call the age of intersectional empire, that Clarence laid out a little bit of, in terms of how race is being deployed by the militaristic, bipartisan consensus elites in the United States. And so, Panama comes about, remember, right after the Central America engagements in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and that was preceded by the Vietnam War, when you have a decline in the morale and the sensibilities of the U.S. military, having suffered a defeat, a severe defeat, in Vietnam. And so, Powell was part of a cadre of leaders trying to figure out how to create a post-Vietnam animus for the U.S. military machine.

But one thing I want to make clear is that the Powell doctrine of overwhelming force, bringing in the public into supporting U.S. war, clearly defined national security objectives and other things that define what they call the Powell-Weinberger doctrine, are still war policies. And so, Colin Powell’s political career was one thing, in terms of race and being pro-abortion, but in terms of militarism, it was clear. In El Chorrillo neighborhood, which taxi drivers in Panama still call the “little Hiroshima,” you know, hundreds of people were killed. They’re still excavating mass grave sites of the invasion of Panama. And so, you know — and prior to that, remember, Powell was an assistant to then-secretary of defense, under the Reagan administration, Caspar Weinberger, who was charged with looking — overseeing military policy in Central America, which, instead of going into what they called asymmetrical warfare, like they did in Vietnam and got beat up, the militarists, like Colin Powell, decided to stray away from those kinds of war and fight them through proxies, and instead focus on building up to get big, you know, state-to-state military wars. And so, the fight against Manuel Noriega, also on false pretenses, was a preview and a preparation for the state-to-state war that followed in Kuwait and Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: And in that U.S. invasion of Panama that he spearheaded, can you talk about who died, Clarence Lusane, in Panama? We’re not just talking about abstract, intellectual, you know, policy issues.

CLARENCE LUSANE: No, that’s exactly right, as Ron [sic] laid out. I actually went to Panama. I went with another reporter, Stan Woods from out of Chicago. We went down after the invasion, and it was horrific. As was mentioned, there were mass graves. There were the total destruction of neighborhoods. They bombed — these were poor neighborhoods, we should be clear. So, there were wealthy neighborhoods that were surgically missed, while they bombed neighborhoods that had not only been active, but had been — you know, very much embodied people who live there. So, it was a horrific invasion. And Powell said nothing about it. It was similar to other military endeavors by the Bush administration and Reagan administration. Powell was silent on the consequences that thousands and thousands and thousands of people — and hundreds of thousands of people died in Iraq, but certainly thousands of people died in Panama. And there still has not been an accounting for that particularly horrible invasion.

AMY GOODMAN: And these were a heavily Black population of Panama.

CLARENCE LUSANE: And these were Afro-Panamanians. That’s exactly right.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Roberto Lovato, go a little before the invasion of Panama to explain the Iran-Contra deal and the role of General Powell at the time. The invasion of Panama was under George H.W. Bush, and the Iran-Contra deal, of course, was when he was vice president, when it was President Ronald Reagan, the ultimately illegal deal to sell weapons to Iran, take that money and illegally support the Contras, which was against, at the time, the Boland Amendment, that said the U.S. could not support the counterrevolutionaries in Nicaragua.

ROBERTO LOVATO: So, Powell, we have to remember, was what he himself called the, quote, “chief administration advocate” for the Contras. The U.S. sponsored an insurgency to try to overthrow the Nicaraguan Sandinista government. I mean, Human Rights Watch and other organizations around the world have documented tens of thousands of people killed, nuns raped, children destroyed by the Contras. And Colin Powell would go on to say that “I have no regrets about my role” and that he fought very hard to get support for the Contras. So, Powell, as assistant secretary to Caspar Weinberger, was privy to information about the arms for hostages and giving money to the Contras deal, but managed to evade judgment, unlike Weinberger, who was indicted and condemned, and then, I believe, pardoned, thanks to lobbying by Colin Powell.

And so, Powell has proven skillful not just in terms of kind of helping reengineer the post-Vietnam military, but he’s also been skillful at evading political judgment, as we saw with My Lai, as we see in Iran-Contra. And, you know, having this idea that the one, quote-unquote, “blot” on his record is the lies around Iraq is a travesty, because he’s made a career out of, you know, being a good soldier and supporting U.S. mass murder around the world, but evading the credit for it. So, this is — yeah, I’ll leave it there.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah. And I’m wondering if you could talk, Roberto, a little bit about, for instance, his legacy in terms of arming and training the Salvadoran Army, and including his relation with José Napoleón Duarte, who was the president of El Salvador in the 1980s.

ROBERTO LOVATO: Yeah. Powell was one of the Reagan administration’s point people in Central America and, as the point person, helped to tee up and then legitimate, when necessary, the Salvadoran military dictatorships and the Guatemalan and other militaries in the region that were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents — and so, in the case of Guatemala, like 200,000 or more mostly Mayan Indigenous people. And so, like, in 1983, for example, Powell was part of a fact-finding kind of mission, that included Jeane Kirkpatrick and Weinberger, to go and see if the Salvadoran — to go confirm the Salvadoran military and government were doing the right thing under Duarte. And, you know, they found that they were doing the right thing and that the U.S. should continue heavily funding and training these murderous militaries. He never said anything about the fact that just a year before and a couple of years before, the massacre of El Sumpul, where about 600 people were killed, was perpetrated by the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government; the massacre of El Mozote, where a thousand people were killed, an entire town wiped out, half of the victims under age 12, and half of those children under age 12 were under age 6. Powell seemed to have amnesia about that, along with Elliott Abrams, another, I would say, war criminal. And El Calabozo and other massacres were completely ignored.

And so, we see Powell playing a role in Central America over the years, from the early '80s all the way ’til the end of the war. And, you know, Powell was very sophisticated and smart in terms of moving with the times, so that when it called for a hard line at the beginning of the Reagan era, he was there. When it called for — remember, in 1989, the FMLN guerrillas, for example, we launched an offensive in the capital of San Salvador to basically demonstrate to the U.S. government and the Salvadoran government, that it was supporting, that they couldn't defeat the FMLN guerrillas. And so, that worked. It was basically — the offensive showed that the guerrillas were able to enter into the capital and fight on their own terms. So, Powell and the Bush administration, you know, seeing this, pivoted and pushed the Salvadoran government to peace. Now, some historians will call Powell a peacenik almost, a liberal, which, I mean, if you’re comparing him to like Alexander Haig or some just uber fascist like that, then, yeah, but in the larger scheme of empire and militarism, Colin Powell has been, you know, was always, a loyal cadre to mass-murdering empire.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go back to Colin Powell’s 2003 speech at the U.N., where he falsely accused Iraq of possessing weapons of mass destruction.

SECRETARY OF STATE COLIN POWELL: Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.

AMY GOODMAN: All of General Powell’s main claims about weapons of mass destruction turned out to be false. But at the time, most of the media took Powell at his word. The invasion of Iraq began six weeks after he made his speech at the United Nations. He himself recognized it was the final nail in the coffin for so many, because he had called himself a “reluctant warrior.” He had dragged his feet on the war, and President Bush wanted his support to be the voice and face of this war. In 2013, Democracy Now! spoke to Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005. Wilkerson helped prepare Powell’s infamous U.N. speech, which he later renounced. Wilkerson said Powell himself was suspicious of the intelligence and wanted to delete any reference in the speech to ties between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: The seminal moment, as we were out at Langley and Colin Powell was getting ready to throw everything out of his presentation that had anything to do with terrorism — that is, substantial contacts between Baghdad and al-Qaeda, in particular — as he was getting — he was really angry. He took me in a room by myself and literally attacked me over it. And I said, “Boss, let’s throw it out. I have as many doubts about it as you do. Let’s throw it out.” And so, we made a decision right there to throw it out.

Within 30 minutes of the secretary having made that decision and instructed me to do so, George Tenet showed up with a bombshell. And the bombshell was that a high-level al-Qaeda operative, under interrogation, had revealed substantial contacts between al-Qaeda and Baghdad.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is the chief of staff of former Secretary of State Colin Powell. He is an Army colonel, Lawrence Wilkerson. In 2009, Sam Husseini of the Institute for Public Accuracy questioned Colin Powell about the false claims he made during the U.N. speech, that was based in part on false information provided by prisoners who had been tortured.

SAM HUSSEINI: General, can you talk about the al-Libi case and the link between torture and the production of tortured evidence for war?

COLIN POWELL: I don’t have any details on the al-Libi case.

SAM HUSSEINI: Can you tell us when you learned that some of the evidence that you used in front of the U.N. was based on torture? When did you learn that?

COLIN POWELL: I don’t know that. I don’t know what information you’re referring to, so I can’t answer.

SAM HUSSEINI: Your chief of staff, Wilkerson, has written about this.

COLIN POWELL: So what? [inaudible] Mr. Wilkerson.

SAM HUSSEINI: So, you’d think you’d know about it.

COLIN POWELL: The information I presented to the U.N. was vetted by the CIA. Every word came from the CIA. And they stood behind all that information. I don’t know that any of them would believe that torture was involved. I don’t know that as a fact. There’s a lot of speculation, particularly by people who never attended any of these meetings. But I’m not aware of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Clarence Lusane, we’re going to give you the final word. Again, this speech, he would late call a “blot” on his career.

CLARENCE LUSANE: So, the thing to remember about that period is that the entire global community was against the invasion. So, when Colin Powell and the Bush administration says that they were vetting this information, they were not listening not only to their allies, they were not listening to what the United Nations itself was actually doing and had essentially proven that there were no weapons of mass destruction. But the administration was determined to go, and Colin Powell basically acceded to that, as he would do both prior to that speech, as he did with the World Conference Against Racism, when the United States and Israel were the only two countries that pulled out, and as he would do after the invasion of Iraq on other policies by the George W. Bush administration, until he was finally driven out. So, there does have to be an accounting for that record. There’s no way to kind of pretty it up. It was atrocious. And again, hundreds of thousands — in some estimates, up to a million — people died as a result of that war.

AMY GOODMAN: And there are still thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq. Clarence Lusane, I want to thank you for being with us, professor at Howard University, author of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice: Foreign Policy, Race, and the New American Century, and Robert Lovato, Salvadoran American journalist and author, wrote his memoir, Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas.

In 30 seconds, we bring you a Democracy Now! exclusive: a conversation with Jean Montrevil, a prominent Haitian American immigrant rights activist who was deported to Haiti several years ago. Now, in a remarkable development, he was allowed to fly back to New York. Stay with us.

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