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Would a Powell Presidency Have Been Different?
An elegiac counterfactual
Vice President Dick Cheney, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, former President George H. W. Bush, and Secretary of State Colin Powell, 2005. White House photo by David Bohrer
There’s been a lot of ink spilled today (most of it written years ago; obits are generally written well in advance of demise when the person in question is old and famous) about the crucial support Colin Powell gave for the war in Iraq, and whether his life and career should properly be defined by that one moment. One of the best meditations in that vein is this one by my colleague, Damon Linker, arguing that Powell went along with and sold a conclusion that he wasn’t nearly as sure of as he made himself out to be because to do otherwise would have required him to break with the administration and make a big statement—and that statement would, itself, have required a level of certainty that Powell didn’t have. Because he was uncertain, he went along with the consensus of his team, and going along with that consensus required him to attest to a certainty that he didn’t share. How many of us, Linker wonders, would have done differently if we were, as Powell was, uncertain of the truth? Who would take a firm stand for doubt?
I think that’s a great insight—and I want to take it a notch further.
From the moment the first Gulf War proved to be an apparent cake walk, Powell became a celebrity—and there was immediate talk of whether he might run for and win the presidency. And it’s not hard to imagine how that might have happened, in a slightly different world. Bob Dole, the 1996 nominee, might have been thrilled to choose Powell as his running mate if he had been willing to serve. It’s hard to think of any choice that would have done more to raise excitement about his campaign, and it’s easy to imagine that the first Black major party nominee and charming military leader might well have outshone the man at the top of the ticket. Powell wouldn’t have been blamed for the loss to Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and would have been in an excellent position to win the nomination in 2000; indeed, it’s like that John McCain might never have run if Powell were in the race, and even George W. Bush might have given it a pass. And had he been the nominee, Powell would have been the odds-on favorite to be president.
The main obstacles to such a scenario—and they were very large obstacles—were first, that Powell himself wasn’t interested in running for elective office (in part because his wife vehemently opposed the idea), and second, that he was not pro-life, which, if he didn’t change his views, would have absolutely disqualified him from the perspective of the largest single faction in the Republican Party. But for the purpose of this counterfactual, we can imagine a Powell more tempted by the prospect of making history, and willing to say that the presidency was worth a mass, and to imagine, therefore, that President Colin Powell was sitting in the Oval Office (or reading to school children) when the planes hit the twin towers.
My question is: what then? How would history have played out differently if someone like Powell—highly experienced, institutionally-oriented and instinctively cautious—had been tasked with charting a post-9/11 course for American foreign policy?
I’m honestly not sure. While it’s very clear that the specifics of how the period between 9/11 and the Iraq War were strongly shaped by the particular players in the Bush Administration—Bush’s impulsivity and lack of depth, Cheney’s paranoia and mania for control, Rumsfeld’s desire to reshape American war fighting doctrine—there were also large background forces at work that would have shaped the decision-making space in very similar ways no matter who was in charge. Toppling the Taliban was never going to have been an adequate response to the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. America had remained at war with Iraq all through the 1990s, and support for toppling Saddam Hussein had strong support from congressional leaders in both parties. The Iraq Liberation Act, which made it American policy to remove Saddam Hussein from power, passed in 1998 by a margin of 360-38 in the House and by unanimous consent in the Senate, and was prompted signed into law by President Clinton. I strongly suspect that, after 9/11, there would have been a significant push to remove Hussein by force no matter who was in the White House. If that push didn’t come from within the administration, it would have come from outside it.
Nor am I merely talking about being swept up in some kind of unstoppable war fever. Yes, that fever was there; I remember it. But there was also a distinctive cracked strategic logic to focusing on Iraq that might have appealed to any president committed to America’s traditional relationships abroad, as Powell certainly was. After 9/11, Americans learned that the hijackers came from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and that Pakistan was the main source of support for the Afghan regime that hosted them. America’s traditional regional allies, in other words, were the breeding grounds of anti-American terrorism. I remember at the time meeting plenty of people—not right-wing people either—who felt that we had to “do something” about those countries, who were appalled by American support for the Saudi regime especially, and wanted to see action taken. But other than retreating from the region—which would unquestionably have read to the public as giving al Qaeda precisely what they wanted—it wasn’t clear what we could “do” that would count as “something.” Iraq, on the other hand, we could “do.” It was already an enemy, after all, and if we “liberated” it then one could squint and imagine it becoming the linch-pin that could replace Saudi Arabia (as Egypt replaced Iran after the Camp David accords and the fall of the Shah).
In retrospect it’s all bonkers; at the time, plenty of people thought it was bonkers; the most vociferous advocates of “invade Iraq so we can turn on Saudi Arabia” were literal fringe wackos. But they carried the day in an administration and a congress that actually had plenty of members who didn’t write for The Weekly Standard. The skeptics just didn’t have an alternative plan to rally around, and most of them quickly came to support a war they didn’t firmly believe in, just as Powell did. The intellectual battle at the time wasn’t between two alternative strategies, but between doing more and doing less, between ambition and caution. And at that moment in history, reckless ambition had the better cards to play. I suspect they would have been the better cards even with the instinctively cautious, institutionalist and experienced Colin Powell in charge.
After all, consider how our actual first Black president, who won the nomination substantially on the strength of his opposition to the Iraq War, and defeated one of the most forceful proponents of that war in the general election, performed in office. When confronted with the choice of whether to reduce our ambitions in Afghanistan or surge more troops, he sent in more troops, as his military advisors urged. He launched an expansive drone war in Pakistan and assassinated Osama bin Laden. All of that could be defended as fulfilling both his own campaign promises and the promises implied by his predecessor’s actions. Far more damningly, though, when he had to choose whether to intervene in Libya with the clear purpose (though undeclared) of removing Muammar Qaddafi from power, he sided with the more hawkish members of his cabinet (and our Saudi allies) and attacked, with less of a legal fig leaf than Bush had in invading Iraq. All of this was after the debacle in Iraq that supposedly had taught him to avoid dumb wars, and well after the trauma of 9/11. And it was only after all of this that President Obama was able to resist the call to launch a full-scale war against the regime in Syria, a decision he counted as requiring the most courage of his career. Considering that record, how plausible is it that Colin Powell, if he had led the country instead of Bush, would have led it in a radically different direction than Bush did if 9/11 had happened on his watch? I can’t count them as very high.
None of this speculation exonerates either the Bush Administration for the Iraq War or Powell for his role therein. If you don’t want the responsibilities of power, don’t seek power. If you seek power, you inherit the responsibilities that come with it. You don’t get to pass the buck by saying that anyone else would have done the same; if anyone else had done it, you could be sitting at home screaming at them on the television and sleeping afterwards with a clear conscience. But we, sitting at home screaming at the television, can still benefit from the awareness that even colossal mistakes like the Iraq War are more than just mistakes, and require more than a few well-placed malevolent actors to bring them about. With a sufficiently long lever you can move the world, but you need a sufficiently long lever. And if such a lever is available, someone is going to push on it, and few in any position to make a difference are likely to resist.