Colin Powell
Colin Powell; drawing by David Levine

In September 1990, as the first President Bush was making up his mind to dispatch a large force to the Persian Gulf to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait, the powerful chairman of the Joint Chiefs was given a chance to make a case to his commander in chief that options short of all-out war had yet to be exhausted. The gist of Colin Powell’s argument was that a decision on war could wait, that economic sanctions, combined with a steady buildup of American forces in Saudi Arabia, might be enough to force Saddam Hussein to back down. That encounter in the Oval Office was set up and witnessed by Dick Cheney, the ever-taciturn defense secretary.

Just shy of twelve years later, sensing that another Bush administration was heading for war with the same old enemy, Powell stayed on after a meeting at the White House in August 2002 to make a hauntingly similar case to the second Bush in what proved to be the longest conversation they’d had, or ever would have, on an issue of foreign policy. This time, of course, Powell was in civvies, a secretary of state who’d flirted with the idea of making a run for the presidency himself a couple of election cycles earlier, when George W. Bush was a neophyte governor. Cheney, now his nemesis, was absent from this session but, as always, lurking in the White House wings, having turned the vice-presidency into something approaching a prime ministership. The Vice President was sure to scoff at the notion that the diplomatic case against Saddam as an actual or potential ally of terrorists, ready to slip them weapons of mass destruction if he hadn’t already done so, had to be carried to the United Nations before any decision to go to war could be called necessary. Cheney, who’d helped place his friend Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon as a counterweight to his former underling, would see this reprise, the general had to know, as a sign of softness.

And yet Powell won that round. Bush overruled Cheney, a rare but not unprecedented event, whether because of Powell’s own persuasiveness or because the case for diplomacy was reinforced by the British prime minister, Tony Blair, who felt he couldn’t sign on to the American campaign to make the Arab world safe for democracy minus the cover of a UN resolution. Powell’s tactical victory, which came on a matter of procedure rather than the larger strategic question of whether Iraq had anything to do with the so-called “war on terror,” was to prove to be his undoing as a member of the administration and, to some degree, as a public figure, for Bush only seemed to be listening when Powell said, as he later recalled, that Iraq was “like a crystal glass…it’s going to shatter. There will be no government. There will be civil disorder.”

To an extent the secretary hadn’t yet grasped, a course had already been set; he hadn’t grasped it because he and the department he led hadn’t been told that they’d already been cut out of war planning. That was something they would have to infer in the coming weeks and months. Powell knew as well as anyone in the country how policymaking was supposed to work, and that grasp, gained through the three previous administrations he’d served, starting with Ronald Reagan’s, sometimes seemed to blind him to the way it was actually working in the fourth. And, of course, he had no way of knowing in that summer of 2002 how he was setting himself up, how his prevailing on the question of going to the UN would lead ineluctably, in a matter of months, to the absolute low point in his own life of worthy public service. I’m speaking, of course, of his speech to the Security Council on February 5, 2003, setting out our purported and now notorious “intelligence” on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in painful detail (its mobile labs for making biological weapons, its dual-use chemical weapons plants, its aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment)—painful because, detail by detail, they’d never be corroborated. This was a man who’d said in his Senate confirmation hearings two years earlier that Iraq was “fundamentally a broken, weak country.” Now he was contending that “in a post–September 11th world,” Saddam Hussein’s possession of “the world’s most deadly weapons” had to viewed as a menace.

“These are not assertions,” the secretary told the Security Council, but “facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.” He knew he was putting his reputation on the line to advance a cause he’d initially hoped to deflect. Cheney had known it too, and seemed to derive a measure of private gratification from the prospect. He’d always felt that the smooth, briskly efficient four-star general he met daily in his Pentagon years cared too much about his own reputation. “You’ve got high poll ratings,” he’d told Powell as his date with the Security Council loomed. “You can afford to lose a few points.”


There’s more nuance than news in Karen DeYoung’s diligent, sympathetic, but not uncritical full-scale biography of Colin Powell, which was written with Powell’s cooperation but not apparently subject to his review. The news she chooses to showcase in a flash-forward first chapter concerns the sorry climax—or, rather, anti-climax—of her subject’s four years as diplomatic front man for an administration that had scant regard for allies and even less for diplomacy: a week after Bush’s reelection in 2004, Powell was unceremoniously dismissed by a White House that had no further use for him or his now depleted prestige. The call didn’t come from the President; that’s not how these things are done. It came from his chief of staff, Andrew Card, who said simply, “The President wants to make a change.” Later it was said that Powell and Bush had discussed his wish to leave after one term; in fact, no such discussion had taken place and Powell would have stayed on, at least for some months, DeYoung tells us, if asked to do so. He would have liked, it seems, to have outlasted Donald Rumsfeld, an indication that he could still misread the inner dynamic of an administration that, even after the Security Council speech, viewed him as a sometimes useful but unreliable outsider, not a team player, someone with priorities (the mission of his department, his own sense of duty, and, yes, his reputation) that did not dependably coincide with those of his president.

From the point of view of those in the White House whose job it is to calibrate loyalty (notably Karl Rove), Powell’s dismissal was appropriate payback to a man who always trounced the President in poll matchups designed to measure public trust, a man who wouldn’t allow his speeches to be vetted, who back in the 2000 campaign had rationed his appearances with candidate Bush and fussed over his place in the program. Also, although he’d always been careful to say he served at the President’s pleasure, the frustrated secretary of state had let the impression get around that he wasn’t interested in staying into a second term so what, after all, was there to discuss? The way policy was made? What had gone wrong in Iraq? In the White House view, the voters had just settled those questions. So it took two months for him to be invited to the Oval Office for a “farewell call.” The President seemed unprepared for the meeting and a little miffed at finding himself without “talking points.” Powell had to tell him the session’s purpose. “Is that why Condi ain’t here?” he asked, in Powell’s recounting. He’d almost never talked to his secretary of state without his national security adviser sitting in. Now Andy Card had to be summoned to save Bush from having to sit alone with Powell at their last official encounter.

Powell himself had told the story of his exemplary rise from Kelly Street and Morris High School in the South Bronx to the pinnacles of Washington power in his best-selling 1995 memoir, My American Journey, which carried him to the point of departure from military service. Although it retraces that journey, fully half of DeYoung’s book dwells on the civilian years and, therefore, overwhelmingly, on his life in the second Bush administration. (All her interviews with her subject, she tells us, focused on those years.) In that context, it may not be a stretch to see its title—Soldier—as suggestive of a view she attributes at different points in her narrative to a French diplomat and a high State Department official who dealt with Powell the diplomat: that the military culture of obedience down the chain of command was too deeply ingrained for him to challenge major decisions taken by anyone in the office he’d sworn as an officer to obey. Clearly, like most high officials, only more so, he wasn’t the resigning type.

More to the point, it’s not a stretch to see DeYoung’s book as something of a sequel to Powell’s; that’s to say, his willingness to talk to this veteran Washington Post correspondent and editor, in conversations that seem mostly to have been on the record—as he’d regularly cooperated on what’s called “deep background” with her colleague Bob Woodward—obviously has something to do with a need he still feels to justify himself, to leave a record of the back-stabbing he endured and to get rid of whatever sour aftertaste was left from his years as secretary of state, which were to have capped his career. (Describing Powell’s expectations at the outset, DeYoung writes: “The job was the perfect fit; it would utilize all of his strengths yet required no political pandering.”)


In the new administration, it would prove not so simple. Following his exit, he wasn’t inclined to go along with another book over his own name; his victories, perhaps, had been too obscure, his losses too obvious. “Never let them see you sweat” had been his motto. If he was not prepared to come forward with candid (and, inevitably, harsh) appraisals of those who survived him in power—Cheney, Rumsfeld and, ultimately, George W. Bush—there was no obvious story line. But at one remove, providing his guarded answers to Karen DeYoung’s probing questions, he could still comment, salve his wounds, and occasionally vent.

From the evidence in this book, Powell still agonizes over what went wrong, just as he agonized over the question of whether the two Gulf wars were necessary; and, indeed, just as he vacillated over the temptation to run for the highest office at a time when even Bill Clinton feared that a Powell candidacy could make him a one-term president. Confident and articulate as Powell is, he is not a man given to intuitive judgments or leaps of faith. The famous Powell Doctrine—demanding overwhelming manpower in any military encounter—was all about shortening the odds, pushing down uncertainty. Translated into the arena of domestic politics, the Powell Doctrine had been immobilizing. The possibility of losing was itself a reason for not running.

As the battle for Iraq loomed, neo-cons mocked him as a reluctant warrior, casting him, in his words, as “the Anti-Christ.” Powell had to watch from the State Department as Donald Rumsfeld set out to demonstrate that laser weaponry and computer tracking had eliminated the need for very large numbers of troops; that preemptive war could be cheap and easy for the one superpower; that there was no risk of getting bogged down; in effect, to repeal the Powell Doctrine: The troops would start coming home by summer. No longer at the Pentagon, no longer the nation’s top military officer, Powell went no further than to make a couple of back-channel calls to General Tommy Franks questioning his force estimates. He believed in departmental boundaries and only wished that Rumsfeld believed in them too. So, like the issue of whether it was the right war in the right place, the issue of whether force levels were adequate was never really joined. “I did not die on my sword over it,” he tells DeYoung.

A careful reporter, DeYoung largely sticks to the facts, laying them out in chronological order without ranging back and forth between one phase of Powell’s career and another to establish patterns and themes. Yet she doesn’t pull punches. When she comes upon a severe judgment with which she agrees, she gives it straight. Summarizing the retrospective conclusions of a senior State Department official, she goes a bit further in her own voice to hammer the point home: “The secretary had tried to play for time and erect roadblocks to slow the march to war, in hopes that something would stop it. But the administration hard-liners, in their hurry to get to Baghdad, had rolled right over him.”

That’s about as judgmental as she’s prepared to be. Her journalistic restraint, verging on self-effacement, is a virtue as well as a limitation. It allows the reader to see events as Powell saw them when they were happening. In this perspective, his resilience becomes a kind of flaw. Time and again Powell regains his footing and optimism after the White House has cut the ground out from under him on the Kyoto treaty, on talks with North Korea, or on just about anything to do with Palestinians; he convinces himself he’s still in the game, still has the President’s ear.

“To Powell,” DeYoung writes, “life was a series of challenges to be dealt with and then balled up like pieces of wastepaper. You threw each one over your shoulder and moved on to the next.” It’s not clear whether the figure of speech is hers or her subject’s. In either case, it’s something less than a worldview, a recipe for bureaucratic survival. Which is not necessarily a weakness: as we’ve seen, worldviews come easily, especially to those who have never had to be present when blood is spilled. Powell had exceptional leadership abilities and a belief in service but no particular ideology beyond a conventional urge to manage the problems he faced as pragmatically as possible. In the end, the battles he fought and lost do him more credit than the skirmishes he won. His prudence about going to war can be seen as timidity. It can also be seen as an asset his president squandered.

Perhaps his finest hour came in January 2002, when he struggled to get Bush to take a second look at a new policy for the detention and treatment of alleged Muslim militants who were to be declared “enemy combatants,” exempted from the protections of the Geneva Conventions, held beyond the reach of any court (except military tribunals governed by newly promulgated rules), and interrogated as heavily as deemed necessary. The secretary of state hadn’t been consulted. State Department officials thought it no coincidence that the decision and announcement came while he was traveling abroad. In Powell’s view, as expressed by DeYoung, Bush’s “decision on a matter of international importance seemed to have materialized out of thin air.” Powell said he needed to see the President.

“Bush was notoriously unwilling to reconsider any decision he had already made. He didn’t like being second-guessed,” DeYoung writes, “and he made his annoyance clear to Powell.” Nevertheless, he agreed the policy would be reconsidered. The reconsideration took two weeks, yielding the infamous memo signed by Alberto Gonzales declaring “the new paradigm” to have rendered Geneva and its protections “obsolete” and “quaint.”

When the discussion moved on to the grittier subject of actual interrogation methods, the general and his department were excluded. If he was not at the table, he’d have less opportunity to complain that the deck was stacked. On abusive interrogation and the binding obligations of the Geneva Conventions, he never bent to the Bush administration’s line. In public pronouncements he skirted the subject, taking umbrage at suggestions that torture could be condoned. Later, within a year of leaving office, he privately urged Senator John McCain to step forward on the issue. Finally in September, he sent McCain a letter intended to be made public during the debate over the Geneva Conventions and whether the President had final say on how they should be interpreted. “The world is beginning to doubt,” Powell wrote, “the moral basis of our fight against terrorism.” Nothing further was heard from him after McCain and two Republican colleagues reached a “compromise” with the White House on a bill that left a president’s decisions on permissible forms of interrogation subject to no judicial or legislative oversight so long as it was the CIA, rather than the military, that was doing the interrogating.

Sometimes, while still at the State Department, he’d rail against a “broken” apparatus for policymaking; on other occasions, he’d blame his frustration on Cheney, who had practically unlimited access to Bush. (Again, here’s DeYoung paraphrasing her subject: “The president tended to pay most attention to the last person to whisper in his ear, Powell thought, and that person was usually Cheney.”) The Cheney he’d thought he knew, thought he could handle, was now under the influence of what Powell derided as “the JINSA crowd,” a reference to the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a Washington think tank that saw Israel as a key military ally rather than a party to a dispute that the United States had a responsibility to broker. (Cheney, in fact, had served on the institute’s advisory board along with Douglas Feith, the number-three man in Rumsfeld’s Pentagon.)

The recurring thump of the Vice President’s sharp elbows becomes a leitmotif. On one occasion, when Powell called over to Bush’s staff to say he was hastening to the White House to write some diplomatic language into a letter on the Kyoto treaty that was about to be dispatched to Capitol Hill, Cheney hand-carried the letter himself up to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue before the secretary could go to work on it. On another, Cheney dictated an ultimatum to Turkey to a desk officer at State, ordering him to transmit it without showing it to his boss. Another time he and Bush drafted new instructions to the ambassador at the North Korea talks without bothering to tell their top diplomat that they’d substituted their directive for his. Powell had to assume these slights were intended to put him in his place.

Three times in the space of fifteen months the President declared his commitment to finding a path to peace for Israel and the Palestinians. “I expect results,” he said in April 2002, having just called on Israel to freeze its settlements and halt incursions into Palestinian territory. Three months later he promised that the United States would “actively lead” an effort to get a “final status agreement” between the two sides by 2005. A year later, at Sharm-el-Sheik, he offered what he termed “my commitment that I will expend the effort and energy necessary to move the process forward.” Each time the words were hardly out of his mouth before the effort faltered, leaving his secretary of state in the embarrassing position of having to explain why. The first round was humiliating for Powell. Bush gave him a Rose Garden send-off to Israel, then changed his marching orders. Almost daily Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, was on the phone, passing along White House objections to something he’d said, telling him what he could not say. They were “ten of the most miserable days of my life,” Powell tells DeYoung.

Only later, when he was out of office, did he allow himself to ponder the question of whether his problem might have gone beyond Dick Cheney, whether the basic defect was in his relationship to a president with whom he’d never had a serious talk before signing on to serve him. The Bush campaign had made free use of the general’s name in 2000 when asked whom the conspicuously untraveled candidate would consult in foreign affairs. But Powell held himself aloof, waiting to endorse Bush until Senator John McCain was out of the running. Later, allowing himself to be used for image purposes, he sat next to Laura Bush when her husband debated Al Gore on foreign affairs. His appointment as secretary of state became a political inevitability, based on assumptions that had never been spoken. The President stood uneasily by the day it was announced while Powell discoursed at length on what the policies of the new administration would be. Six weeks passed before they finally had a serious talk over dinner, a conversation that did nothing, it seems, to dent Powell’s confidence that Bush was inclined to embrace his counsel.

The White House inner circle would not have known that Powell had sometimes referred to Bush as “Sonny” in private chats with people he trusted. But they saw enough to sense a touch of condescension, enough to suspect that civilian life had enlarged Colin Powell’s expectations as well as his bank account. Having faced adoring audiences, having been implored to run for president, he may have been a little slow to get an accurate reading on his role and influence in the new regime. He’d declared himself a Republican in 1995, at a time when the party was already tacking sharply to the right, imagining he could help reset its course, though he was in his own estimate only “55 percent Republican.” In a similar misjudgment, he’d persuaded himself that George Bush was the moderate “compassionate conservative” portrayed in the campaign, that he would use Powell not merely to bask in his popularity but also to draw on his experience.

In fact, the two men turned out to be temperamental opposites. The cautious Powell made lists of options, broke decisions down into manageable small bits. Bush was a risk-taker with great confidence in his own intuitions, so much that he habitually interrupted foreign leaders who tried to present other views. No wonder they seemed to speak past each other; their conversations, DeYoung writes, remained “stiff and formal.” Only in his second retirement did Powell gain the necessary distance to ask himself whether the secretive, seemingly impulsive way policy came into being in the administration he served derived not merely from Cheney’s machinations but the President’s own character and wishes. “He didn’t check it or stop it or change it in any way,” Powell finally tells DeYoung. “You don’t go to the president and say, ‘Is this the way you want it?’ The president was always in charge…. It’s the president who decides all this.”

Bush didn’t consult Powell on his decision to go to war. In early January 2003, he simply told him: “I really think I’m going to have to take this guy out.” Powell thought it still too early for a decision. (“It wasn’t time…. It just wasn’t,” he told his biographer. “He didn’t have Blair yet. He didn’t have a coalition yet.”) But he knew he was being told, not asked, so he just said, “You realize the consequences of this?” Bush said he did, then asked if he could count on Powell’s support. Ever the good soldier, Powell said he could, thereby stopping a long way short of the example set by one of his predecessors, Cyrus Vance, who opposed the attempt to rescue hostages in Iran in 1980 but withheld the announcement of his resignation until the mission fizzled. Powell’s session with Bush lasted twelve minutes. “I didn’t need his permission,” the President later said.

In the intervening few weeks before he appeared in the Security Council, Powell echoed the line on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction with a vehemence that sounded Cheneyesque, driving through a flashing red light raised by his own department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. The idea that the weapons might not be there had crossed his mind. (“I wonder what we’ll do,” he said offhandedly one day to his chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, “when we put half a million troops on the ground in Iraq and search it from one end to the other—and find nothing.”) But, like virtually every senator and commentator in Washington, he didn’t really consider that a serious possibility.

Only when his UN speech had been firmly scheduled did he go to CIA headquarters to look closely at the evidence. He threw out a tendentious forty-eight-page report drafted in the Vice President’s office that depended heavily on unconfirmed raw intelligence; threw out anything provided by the Pentagon’s favorite exile, Ahmed Chalabi; threw out a reference to uranium cake imported from Niger that the President himself had just used in the State of the Union address. But he fudged the question of whether Saddam had ties to al-Qaeda and on the say-so of George Tenet, the CIA chief, kept in the mention of mobile biological warfare vans, even though its source, known as “Curveball,” had already been discredited by German intelligence. Rationalization was possible: surely something would be found, even if some of his assertions proved wide of the mark.

The speech was meant to have the impact of Adlai Stevenson’s address in the same forum in 1962 on Soviet missiles in Cuba. It was initially hailed in the United States—a Washington Posteditorial called it “irrefutable”—but those in the best position to judge knew at once that the evidence was shakier, even shiftier, than Powell had made it seem.

In a little more than two months, since resuming inspections in Iraq, United Nation teams had gone to more than three hundred sites—dozens of them suggested by the United States—and had found nothing (proof in itself, American true believers then claimed, of Iraq’s duplicity). Hans Blix, the Swedish head of the UN effort, said the inspectors could complete their work in two months and leave behind a monitoring regime capable of discovering renewed Iraqi cheating. Speaking diplomatically the week after Powell’s address, he noted drily that “intelligence”—what he would later deride as “faith-based intelligence”—was not synonymous with “evidence.” Making the same point in a less oblique way in his 2004 book Disarming Iraq, Blix asked a common-sense question Americans, including Powell, might have asked the year before: “Could there be 100-percent certainty about the existence of weapons of mass destruction but zero-percent knowledge about their location?” By the Blix account, five hundred sites had been inspected by the time one of Powell’s assistant secretaries called him to say “it was time to withdraw our inspectors.”

Powell had believed from the start that the war could be avoided. If he mustered a certainty he didn’t feel for purposes of advocacy, it was because he knew an invasion to be inevitable. The President had made his decision, in effect claiming the right to act unilaterally to enforce UN resolutions without UN authorization, on the strength of a suspicion that had hardened into a belief. When the “liberation” gave rise to the havoc he’d predicted, Powell allowed himself to be further marginalized, as if to say he wasn’t the one who got us into this. He failed to take an active interest in the work of his own State Department team cataloging the issues that would have to be faced in any occupation of Iraq; something between an analysis and a plan, it eventually ran to thirteen volumes. Nor did he challenge the President’s directive giving the Pentagon total charge of what was supposed to be a reconstruction phase.

Powell points his biographer to a quotation from George Catlett Marshall, a soldier-statesman in whose footsteps he tried to walk. “I never haggled with the president…never handled a matter apologetically,” Marshall said, describing his relation with Franklin Roosevelt during World War II. The general doesn’t need to be told the analogy has shortcomings. “Colin Powell isn’t George Marshall,” he observes wryly, “and George Bush isn’t Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

This Issue

November 2, 2006