The Consistency of General Powell

Most of America seems to be walking around only vaguely aware that their country is about to embark on a medium-sized but quite consequential war. The remainder, especially those who troll blogspace, scramble for each new crumb of news. And there is nothing wrong with that. But sometimes some eye-opening material resides in less current sources.

I just finished revisiting my copy of My American Journey, by Colin Powell. I found the following passages to be very timely. Please pardon a lengthy quote.

[W]hy didn’t we push on to Baghdad once we had Saddam on the run? Why didn’t we finish him off? Or, to put it another way, why didn’t we move the goalposts? What tends to be forgotten is that while the United States led the way, we were heading an international coalition carrying out a clearly defined U.N. mission. That mission was accomplished. The President … had promised the American people that Desert Storm would not become a Persian Gulf Vietnam, and he kept his promise.

Id. at 525.

From the geopolitical standpoint, the coalition, particularly the Arab states, never wanted Iraq invaded and dismembered. Before the fighting, I received a copy of a cable sent by Charles Freeman, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “For a range of reasons,” Freeman said, “we cannot pursue Iraq’s unconditional surrender and occupation by us. It is not in our interest to destroy Iraq or weaken it to the point that Iran and/or Syria are not constrained by it.” Wise words, Mr. Ambassador. It would not contribute to the stability we want in the Middle East to have Iraq fragmented into separate Sunni, Shia, and Kurd political entities. The only way to have avoided this outcome was to have undertaken a largely U.S. conquest and occupation of a remote nation of twenty million people. I don’t think that is what the American people signed up for.
Of course, we would have loved to see Saddam overthrown by his own people for the death and destruction he had brought down on them. But that did not happen. And the President’s demonizing of Saddam as the devil incarnate did not help the public understand why he was allowed to stay in power. It is naïve, however, to think that if Saddam had fallen, he would necessarily have been replaced by a Jeffersonian in some sort of desert democracy where people read the The Federalist Papers along with the Koran. Quite possibly we would have wound up with a Saddam by another name.

Id. at 526.

Much of what Powell has done in the last several months can be seen as an attempt to replicate the situation he faced in 1991. First, the desire to have a limited, defined, U.N.-mandated mission. Second, the desire to have a broad coalition, for the very purpose of limiting the possible scope of American aims and ambitions with regard to Iraq in the event of a war. Powell wants limited “goalposts” set so the United States does not get into something too big or too risky. Third, the focus on the “stability” concerns of the region’s Arab governments, particularly Saudi Arabia. Fourth, the dread of having to occupy and impose a government on Iraq. Note the rhetorical gimmick Powell employs here, the false dichotomy between Saddam and a Jeffersonian democracy. There were and are certainly better alternatives to Saddam’s regime short of some fantasy scenario. Note also the remarkable statement that Saddam “was allowed to stay in power”.

Worrisome recent articles indicate that the current State Department plan is to minimize the effect of any United States occupation of Iraq, to placate the Saudis. Kanan Makiya’s article is entitled “Our hopes betrayed”. Makiya asserts that the leaked State Department documents indicate that “The plan, as dictated to the Iraqi opposition in Ankara last week by a United States-led delegation, further envisages the appointment by the US of an unknown number of Iraqi quislings palatable to the Arab countries of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia as a council of advisers to this military government. ” In other words, we are planning to leave much of the Baath party apparatus, the guys who run the torture chambers, in place in a post-conquest Iraq for the purpose of appeasing the Sunni leadership of the Gulf Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia. To quote General Powell, “I don’t think that is what the American people signed up for.” How deeply General Powell has been involved in this planning, or even how true these rumors are, cannot at yet be known. But, let’s assume arguendo that these rumors are basically true.

Why are we doing this? Why does the State Department want to preserve “stability” at the expense of any hope for freedom or progress for this “remote nation of twenty million people” we are about to liberate at the price of American and British blood? First, I suppose, bureaucratic inertia. The State Department is terrified of any change in the region because its institutional interest lies in preserving the personnel and regimes it has invested in and cultivated. The State Department’s franchise is access, knowing whom to call. If a brand new regime comes along, all that goes in the waste basket. The last thing these guys want is the House of Saud swept into the trash can. Furthermore, more controversially, the State Department has been corrupted by Saudi bribe money. Daniel Pipes has been writing about this, very plausibly. ( This will be full text when the Spring Issue is published.)

On the same point, this article is also disturbing. It notes that:

The Pentagon and the vice-president Dick Cheney are broadly in favour of introducing Western-style democracy to Iraq but the State Department under Colin Powell and the CIA believe it could have a destabilising influence on the region.
Iraq’s neighbours, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are also vehemently opposed to any federal arrangement that gives power to Iraq’s Kurds or Shiites.

As General Powell noted in his memoir, after the U.S. and Iraq had ceased fighting:

For a moment, it looked as if the war might flare up again. In March, the Iraqi Shiites in the south rose up in arms to demand more recognition from Baghdad. Saddam responded by sending in his troops to suppress the uprising. In the north, the Kurds tried to shake off the Iraqi yoke. Neither revolt had a chance. Nor, frankly, was their success a goal of our policy. President Bush’s rhetoric urging the Iraqis to overthrow Saddam, however may have given encouragement to the rebels. But our practical intention was to leave Baghdad enough power to survive as a threat to an Iran that remained bitterly hostile toward the United States.

American Journey at 530-31 (emphasis added).

Same thing, different decade. The freedom of any of the people of Iraq “frankly, was not a goal of our policy” in 1991. Nor, apparently, for some in the Bush administration, is it a goal now. For those who value stability above all else, it is necessary to prevent the majority Shiites or the Kurds from having any autonomy, even within a unitary Iraq, since we must placate the Turks and Saudis. To keep these communities in a unitary Iraq and subject to a Sunni minority, our State Department apparently believes that it must maintain or create an authoritarian state in Iraq to enforce discipline. In other words, the United States, to satisfy the State Department and certain of our so-called allies in the region, must be complicit in the creation of a new despotism. In General Powell’s words, “a Saddam by another name”.

Fortunately, we have another ally, not in the region, who is a real ally — Britain or, at least, its Prime Minister, Mr. Blair. Mr. Blair’s recent, brilliant speech convinced, grudgingly, various center-left acquaintances of mine (including, incredibly, my wife!) that the war is just and necessary. The main focus of Blair’s case, made to a Labor Party audience, was the necessity of ending Saddam’s tyranny and bringing a better life to the Iraqi people. I am sure that Blair is sincere. But that aside, what he has done is reached out to a very significant center-left/liberal constituency which can be swayed by Wilsonian/Gladstonian appeals. This is the same liberal-hawk community which supported the wars against Serbia. They did so because they believe in fighting against tyranny and spreading liberal values, even at gunpoint. (Of course, President Bush made similar arguments, with evident sincerity, in his State of the Union Address. However, Mr. Blair, as a man of the Left has credibility with this constituency which Bush does not and cannot have.) If Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair are serious about the moral dimension of this cause, the liberal internationalist, nation-building dimension, and I think they are, they had better act soon to thwart the short-sighted purported “realism” of the United States State Department.

I have left a question hanging which is implicit in much of the foregoing: Is Powell a villain?

I have to say he is not. The most important thing to understand about Powell is that his whole career has been shaped by Vietnam. The Gulf War was, in this analysis, consciously shaped by him to be the exact opposite of Vietnam. It was a coalition effort, with limited aims, which was executed swiftly, with few lives lost, with no nation building involved, with no long occupation or long-term foreign placement of United States troops, and wound up and ended quickly and successfully, allowing us to “declare victory and come home.” Powell is also a “realist” with a pessimistic and tragic cast of mind. The world is full of dangers, and things could always be much, much worse. Tinkering with something stable and reliable, like the Saudi regime, even if it is not what we’d like it to be, is foolhardy . Hard decisions have to be made, and utopian fantasies have no place. Preserving Iraq is a way of protecting the Gulf oil from the Iranians, for example. It is a choice made from a small set of alternatives, all bad. Most of all, he is a soldier, for whom sending people out to war, to risk life and limb in the service of do-goodery is a prescription for lots of dead soldiers, limitless commitments, and frustrated hopes — Vietnam all over again. Powell is a conservative in this strict and narrow sense.

I find Powell’s viewpoint appealing. I am close to it myself. We live in a fallen world scarred by original sin. Most good intentions lead to Hell, or its suburbs. Big, open ended political projects, especially those requiring the use of force, are almost always doomed.

Nonetheless, there are moments when the existing template won’t do. When major steps need to be taken because the world we know, or parts of it, are disintegrating. We can try to prevent the disintegration, or channel it and begin building a more stable, successor structure. The Middle Eastern order arose from the collapse of Ottoman power at the end of World War I. It has always been a ramshackle affair. (See David Fromkin’s brilliant book A Peace to End All Peace.) The apparent stability of the existing regimes in the region rests on their ongoing repression and little more. We can try to hold that lid on the pot forever, or begin pushing the region toward a more long-term stable form of governance, more liberal and democratic, more free. Is this risky? Yes. Is remaining the ally and supporter of the tyrannies of the region, in perpetuity, risky? Yes, very much so, more so. In fact, the ongoing tyranny in the Arab world, supported by the United States in the name of “stability”, more than anything else was the source of the September 11 attacks. (See the brilliant article by Michael Doran, “Somebody Else’s Civil War”. Also, as an antidote to the notion that the Palestinian problem is the root cause of the animus against the United States in the region, see this essay, “Palestine, Iraq, and American Strategy” also by Michael Scott Doran). The truest realism for the current situation is a substantial commitment to changing the region in a positive way, while we can still influence events. In other words, we need to stop fearing instability as if it were the ultimate evil. (See the excellent article by Ralph Peters, “Stability, America’s Enemy”.) In any case, instability is not something we can stop. The region is unstable, and is going to change radically, because the existing structure is rotten and doomed.

These moments of major change occur infrequently, but they occur. The American founding was one such moment. The American Civil War and Reconstruction was another. The European occupation of the Mideast after World War I was another. The rise of Hitler and the rearmament of Germany, and the foreign response to it, was another. The British withdrawal from India and the partition was another. The early Cold War and the Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO was another such pivotal moment. Some of the moments were handled well, others badly, some worked out favorably, others disastrously. Sometimes it wasn’t clear at the time, at least at first, that anything major was going on. It took wise and far-seeing leaders to discern that major events were in the offing, requiring novel thinking. At such times “business as usual” is anything but the prudent course.

September 11 signaled clearly and unmistakably that the existing order in the Muslim world is not only not working but is a major and growing threat to the United States. A major change in how business is done is going to happen in the Muslim world. We can help to channel and direct it, or we can cling to the past and be dragged along. Reimposing tyranny on Iraq in the interests of a phantom “stability” and to placate regimes which are part of the problem would be a step in the wrong direction. We will need to take the risk that our values and institutions have application elsewhere, that they do indeed reflect universal aspirations, as the Declaration of Independence claimed. In fact, spreading these values is now an explicit policy goal, according to the National Security Strategy of the United States, which says “In pursuit of our goals, our first imperative is to clarify what we stand for: the United States must defend liberty and justice because these principles are right and true for all people everywhere. No nation owns these aspirations, and no nation is exempt from them.” It goes on to say that “America must stand firmly for the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the absolute power of the state; free speech; freedom of worship; equal justice; respect for women; religious and ethnic tolerance; and respect for private property.” Which is all pretty universalist.

So, to conclude, General Powell is not a villain. He is a smart and serious man, a well-intentioned public servant, a man who hates to use force but is willing to do so if necessary, a cautious man who has had to look parents of dead soldiers in the eye. But, if he supports these plans to maintain an authoritarian regime in Iraq, he is failing to see the meaning of the moment in which he has been called to great office, and he is deeply mistaken about what is good for America, for the people of Iraq, and the world.