Sunday, October 19, 2008

General Powell's Finest Hour

I have never met General Colin Powell, and I have not always agreed with the stances he has taken in public life. While he had an outstanding record as a senior military leader and handled the Gulf War brilliantly as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I was angry when he effectively blocked President Clinton’s attempt to allow gays to serve openly in the military, and of course I regretted the role that he played in getting us into the war in Iraq (although I do not believe, as a few have suggested, that he had the power to have stopped the war.) He has long struck me as representative of the Silent generation: a sensible man, a mediator, and a believer in compromise and government by reasonable men. Such members of Artist generations—those born in the midst of great national crises, who grow to young adulthood in periods of postwar consensus—often become tragic figures late in life, like the Compromisers Henry Clay and Daniel Webster and the Progresssive Woodrow Wilson, because their wise counsel is ignored by younger Prophet leaders on both sides as the nation plunges towards catastrophe. That was General Powell’s fate in the first Bush Administration. But General Powell’s story, as it turned out, was not over, and this morning, face to face with his fellow Silent Tom Brokaw on Meet the Press, he performed a truly heroic act, crossing party lines to endorse Barack Obama for President. It is, I think, a move likely to have a substantial effect on the remainder of the campaign, and, more importantly, to lay the foundation for a broader attack on our national problems after Senator Obama becomes President on January 20.

The way General Powell presented his decision typified the best of his generation. He said, and I believed him, that he had spent many months pondering his course of action, and supplementing his long acquaintance with John McCain, whom he refused to criticize directly, with many contacts with Barack Obama. It was clear to me, as one with long experience with the American military, that he had measured Obama the way he had measured hundreds of his subordinates—by his capacity to do the enormous task which he had undertaken. He was evidently especially impressed by Obama’s response to the economic crisis. Although he did not specifically say this, the virtues which he attributed to Senator Obama—an inquiring mind, an ability to master data, and an unfailingly calm and unflappable approach—are also those of a great military leader. This, he seemed to say, was not a man who would make snap decisions based on ideology—and indeed he is not.

The test which General Powell implicitly accused Senator McCain of failing is also a military one: a failure to establish a command climate reflecting his own values, and a failure to control his troops. Senator McCain’s own military background has some relevance here. He was a fighter pilot, and among the American officer corps, fighter pilots play an almost uniquely individualistic role. While they depend upon their fellow pilots in action and upon their maintenance crews to keep their planes going, they do not have to worry about motivating and coordinating subordinates very much. Using a clam and even tone and measured language, General Powell delivered a scathing indictment of the McCain campaign: the robocalls, the obsession with Bill Ayers (which Brokaw disgracefully echoed, seeming to suggest that Ayers’s failure to repudiate his terrorist acts somehow reflected upon Obama, which it does not), and the choice of a Vice Presidential candidate who, as he put it, clearly is not ready to be President. The last point will be particularly telling, it seems to me, precisely because Obama has been so careful not to make any such statement himself—he has stayed above such things. Being a former military leader in what is now a multicultural Army, Powell was not bound by political correctness, and was not afraid to call Palin unfit just because she happens to be a woman, nor should he be. And Powell explicitly rejected Republican extremism on social issues when he said that he feared two more Republican appointments to the Supreme Court.

The most moving moment of his presentation occurred, I thought, towards the end, when he once again brought up the accusation that Barack Obama is a Muslim, and answered it in terms reminiscent of my own childhood and his youth. He isn’t, of course, he said, but what if he were? Has that become a crime in the United States, and are not young Muslim boys and girls entitled to dream of becoming President like the rest of us? That echoed both John Kennedy and FDR, and I am not aware of a single elected official who has shown comparable courage since 9/11.
We should not underestimate the difficulty of what Powell has done or the consequences he will have to endure. Having been for twenty years one of the most recognizable and popular men in America, he will now be subjected to one of the worst and most hate-filled attacks in the history of talk radio. Just as military men have to face hostile firepower, courageous politicians (especially in a time like this) have to be able to deal with endless invective, and I am honestly not sure which is more difficult. Yet he has made a contribution to our national life at least equal to any that he made in uniform. He surely would be a most valuable member of an Obama Administration—and in a far more prominent jobs than the ones Brokaw so patronizingly illuminated (Ambassador at large to Africa, or mediator of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.) It is sad, as I remarked yesterday, that there are almost no Republicans like him left in high elective office, but perhaps he can also help found a kind of Republican Party in exile that might begin to bring the party of Lincoln into the twenty-first century.

Thank you, General Powell. Your country never needed you more than it does right now, and you were there to help.


Anonymous said...

I appreciate your eloquence, David. And while I agree with much of what you have written, I'm sorry to say that I, and many others fail to share your conclusion.

"Your country never needed you more than it does right now, and you were there to help."

No, the country desperately needed someone at a high level in the Bush administration to say "No! This is wrong!", and to resign in (loud) protest years ago.

Powell was in a position to do that, whether before the predictably disastrous Iraq war, or subsequently when it became painfully obvious that he had been used as a ignorant tool at the U.N.

Heroism? What, exactly, is heroic about supporting a candidate who is highly likely to win an impending election in any case? He's a hero because he risks the probability that the right-wing noise machine is going to shout at him? Please.

Lawrence Wilkerson, Richard Clarke, James Comey, etc. are the ones who had the guts and morality to stand up to the outrages which were frequently perpetrated by this Administration, and therefore deserve special respect. And while you (and others) may argue that Powell provided useful ballast within the Administration (I imagine that is how he rationalizes his actions), he obviously wasn't able to stop the criminals above him from wreaking havoc around the world day after day, month after month, and year after year.

Am I glad that Powell's endorsement might help Obama get elected? Yes. Do I believe that it was a particularly courageous move on his part? No. Do I believe that it somehow makes up for his despicable, facilitating silence during his years under Bush? NO.

Nur-al-Cubicle said...

A friend of mine always says, in life you sometimes get what you need, not what you want.

We needed Powell to come around. The militarization of the State Dept under Powell and his right-hand man, Richard Armitage, is still bitter, but I'll take this endorsement with cheer.

Anonymous said...

Yes. Bravo, General! I note that being a Silent is reinforced by his steady, conscientious, rule-abiding temperament - in Harry Potter terms, he'd be a very high-level Hufflepuff. (How I explain these matters to my friends. Obama, then, is a Ravenclaw, and McCain, a Gryffindor. DOn't get me started on naming the high-level Slytherins pulling the presidential strings this past 8 years.)

It's all over but the inauguration. And high time.

Anonymous said...

It was a good moment for Powell to be sure, but hardly his "finest moment." That moment came when he brought Pakistan and India back from the brink of a Nuclear War. This went by largely uncommented on because of the rush at the time to war in Iraq. But Powell probably saved hundreds of millions of lives.

kingpinbravo said...

Colin Powell would likely be the President of the USA now had he had the guts to resign rather than be used as a pawn at the UN to justify the invasion of Iraq. But David , I could not get past the clinker in your essay regarding the 'Progressive Woodrow Wilson 'particularly as we now have race looming as the big question mark in this national election . Woodrow Wilson both as head of Prinston University and as President of the USA did more to militate against race relations in the USA than any other individual in history in my opinion .

Matthew E said...

idiotgrrl: The way I always had it mapped out, Silents are Hufflepuffs (like you said), Boomers are Ravenclaw, GenX are Slytherin and Millennials are Gryffindor.

Which isn't exactly a recommendation for Obama. But still.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Tony C.

In fact I made a comment at Chris Floyd's site earlier on which will serve here:

I have always thought Powell one of only two people on earth who could have halted the juggernaut heading toward Iraq in 2002. The other? That fellow courtier Tony Blair. The US had Scheuer and Ritter and Brady Kiesling among others trying to tell people what was really happening, to no avail. No oxygen could be spared for the truth in the home of the brave. The UK had Kathleen Gun and a few others also doing their best to stop what they knew was a war based on what George Galloway called 'a pack of lies' - to no avail. We in Australia had intel officer Andrew Wilkie cop the traitor treatment from all those righteous patriots you never see around the blogs any more, for simply telling it like it was. To no avail.

Nelson Mandela had no effect. Gandhi himself could have made a comeback and he too would have been sent to Coventry for standing in the way. The French were ridiculed by ridiculous people for daring to disagree. You get the feeling Mary mother of God would have copped it too, had she put her 2c worth in.

No, the only two people well placed and powerful enough to have had a decisive effect on the elites required to get Bushco across that line were Mssrs Blair and Powell. They were handed, on a silver ewer, the opportunity to stamp their names on history in gold leaf. They could have OWNED the last 7 years or so had they taken that path, the one that did not involve pats on the head from GWB and holidays with Silvio Berlusconi, lucrative sinecures for life and puff pieces in the same outlets that carried their lies and evasions into millions of living rooms to smooth the path to war. An illegal war, which never bothered them of course, but also a disastrous one, which does bother them, a bit. Not because of the disaster it has been to those at the sharp end, but the disaster it has been to their CVs.

They were in the right place at the right time to make their mark on the world, in such a way no one could ever forget them. They were tested, and they were found wanting. They will be remembered all right, for all the wrong reasons. Which is why we see this nod to Obama - it's like Blair's swanning ineffectually around the Middle East, getting in the way - an attempt to buff the record a tad.

They are two of the best turd polishers in recent history, but a polished turd still stinks to high heaven.

The only thing I'd cavil about tony is that Wilkerson and Clarke deserve perhaps a little less kudos than Comey, or indeed Paul O'Neill, because although they cleared their throats earlier than Powell, it was still too little, and far too late.

Powell is no hero, and his weaknesses, certainly in terms of their impact, crush whatever has flowed from his strengths. He is a company man, not a leader. And that's what the US has so signally lacked for years; genuine, fearlessly independent leadership.

I seem to recall reading a while ago that Powell snr had profited handsomely from his son's dreadful tenure at the FCC (and David, it's ironic you fear for Powell's treatment at the hands of the right wing radio ranters, when his own flesh and blood bent over backwards to ensure they could never be thretened by a return to the Fairness Doctrine) Nothing illegal of course, just good information before a few big mergers. He's an insider and an outsider is what's needed right now.

Glenn Condell

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with Glenn Condell. Powell is a company man. His son proved this at the FCC. The fact that he endorses Obama makes me more leery of Obama, not more fond of Powell.

Hold up another "vile of WMD" Colin.