That supporters of Barack Obama would welcome Colin Powell’s endorsement of their candidate ought not come as much of a shock. The former Secretary of State’s knock-down, drag out tussles with Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, the State Department's frequent leaking of information to undermine Powell's enemies, and his criticism of the Iraq War (both during and after his service in the administration) have done much to endear him to the Left. Liberal reaction to Powell’s endorsement has been complicated to a minor degree by his influential role in making the case for war, but this history has been conveniently downplayed in favor of the strenuously self-cultivated image of Powell as the lone voice of reason in an otherwise nefarious administration.
But the public career of Colin Powell offers a cautionary tale for those liberals now cottoning onto him.
A lifelong Republican whose career spanned tenures as national security adviser, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State, Powell is universally acknowledged for his wealth of national security experience. His view of the world is neatly encapsulated by what is now referred to as the “Powell Doctrine,” summarized by Gene Healey as the belief that “military force should only be used if there was a clear risk to national security; that the force used should be overwhelming; and that the operation must have strong public support and a clear exit strategy.” This is not something that would normally appeal to people who fashion themselves liberal internationalists. As Lawrence Kaplan wrote in February of 2001, “Strict adherence to the Powell doctrine means no peacekeeping missions, no punitive air strikes, no humanitarian interventions-in short, no operation the US military seems likely to be asked to perform in the near future.” One could argue that the Iraq War has vindicated the Powell Doctrine, but that assessment would be obviated by Powell’s own support for the war, nor does it offer much hope to liberals wishing to use American power elsewhere throughout the world—say, Darfur—where “national interest,” narrowly defined by Powell, would almost always reject it.
Whatever his credentials, Powell’s judgment on issue after issue has been lacking. As Joint Chief Chairman under President George H.W. Bush, Powell downplayed intelligence assessments indicating that Saddam Hussein would annex Kuwait as Iraq's 19th province and when the Iraqi invasion subsequently occurred, he counseled the president against assembling an international coalition to reverse it. Once the war started, Powell advocated an early halt to ground operations that resulted in three Republican Guard units slaughtering a good deal of our Kurdish and Shiite allies. In a September 2003 meeting with the New York Times editorial board, Powell strongly implied that he would not have supported the second Gulf war if weapons of mass destruction were not at issue. But if Powell believes that removing Saddam Hussein in 2003—a war that he initially supported—was such a tragic mistake, he has himself to blame for so forcefully advocating the dictator's preservation in 1991.
Powell’s support for the strictest possible definition of American national interest manifested itself again in his counsel on the Balkans, which basically amounted to “do nothing.” During the late years of the H.W. Bush administration and the duration of his service in the Clinton administration, he was one of the most outspoken opponents of U.S. military intervention. In 1992, on the eve of the election of a president who had called for force against Slobodan Milosevic throughout his campaign, Powell penned a New York Times op-ed opposing military involvement, an unprecedented step for an acive general, and one that Christopher Hitchens labeled "mutinous." It wasn't until he left the position of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs that the United States, belatedly, took action.
Perhaps this history will not disappoint the supporters of the junior senator from Illinois, given the newfound isolationism of so many American liberals. But there is something else that should give those liberals pause: Powell’s record on a signature civil rights issue of the age has been nothing short of disgraceful. Powell did more than any uniformed officer to undermine the attempt by President Clinton to allow openly gay people to serve in the military, an explicit promise Clinton made in his presidential campaign. This is a baleful, not to mention dangerous (given the number of gay linguists who have been booted from the uniformed services) policy that the president could, and ought to, have changed by executive order. (The military, seemingly unbeknownst to Powell throughout his decades of government service, operates under civilian control.) But for various reasons (his draft-dodging past chief among them) Clinton refused to stand up to the uniformed officers under his command.
And no officer took better advantage of Clinton's spinelessness than Powell. At one point, he even threatened to resign if Clinton pressed the issue further than the compromise "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy—a policy that soon resulted in the discharge of even more gay soldiers than under the previous protocol. At the time, Powell sought to downplay any comparison between the racial integration of the military and the potential inclusion of open homosexuals, writing in a letter to congresswoman Pat Schroeder that “skin color is a benign, non-behavioral characteristic. Sexual orientation is perhaps the most profound of human behavioral characteristics.” That Powell, the highest achieving beneficiary of Harry Truman's decision to unilaterally desegregate the military, would be the individual most responsible for preventing the similar integration of gays is to his everlasting shame.
To be sure, Powell has since softened his stance on the issue. In 2007 he told Tim Russert that his “own judgment is that gays and lesbians should be allowed to have maximum access to all aspects of society,” though he did not go so far as to say that the ban should be lifted. Powell's newfound, post-government (read: professionally convenient and less politically consequential) enlightenment on this issue, more than 12,500 unnecessary honorable discharges later, does not absolve him of his original impetuosity nor the weakening effect its had on the caliber of the nation's armed forces.
Some are touting Powell's endorsement of Obama as his backhanded way of repudiating the neoconservatives, who, in the suspicious narrative of Powell sympathizers, somehow tricked him into making his February 2003 presentation on weapons of mass destruction before the United Nations Security Council. Certainly, if Powell’s behavior as Secretary of State is any indication—not to mention his conspicuous refusal to repudiate the unhinged assertions of his former deputy Lawrence Wilkerson, who has accused Jewish members of the Bush administration of being “card-carrying members of the Likud Party”—sticking a fork in the eye of his bureaucratic and ideological adversaries is as good an explanation as any for his endorsement of Obama. But it's nonetheless important, especially for Obama's dovish supporters, to note that Powell's announcement was not accompanied by a repudiation of the Iraq War or his own controversial role in making the case for it. On the contrary, Powell defended his tenure as Secretary of State and even went out of his way to trumpet the success of Bush's surge strategy, the obvious benefits of which Obama refused to acknowledge until cornered by Bill O'Reilly.
All in all, there isn't much to admire in this record, especially if one purports to be a liberal internationalist, something that Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and many other prominent supporters of the Democratic ticket profess to be. More than anything else—other than isolationism—what we see throughout Powell's career is a willing ignorance of the constitutionally defined relationship between the armed services and the president of the United States. Powell's disrespect for civilian control of the military and propensity to undermine presidential authority was made plain, in different ways, throughout his service in the Bush I, Clinton and Bush II administrations. It’s understandable that this insubordination was something liberals may have appreciated when a president they didn't like was in office. But if American liberalism is to be something more than mere knee-jerk opposition to Bush (as Obama promises to be), then liberals ought to treat yesterday’s news with something less than the fawning enthusiasm they have thus far displayed.