Some of those in the George W. Bush administration who were most responsible for starting the Iraq War were obvious sickos — the kind of operatives who can make bloodthirsty policy in a democracy, but could probably never get elected to anything because their public statements cause decent humans to cringe in horror.
Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld wanted to go to war with Iraq even though the administration had no good reason for doing so, because, he said, Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, had “a lot of good targets.”
Deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, similarly, argued for the invasion because it was “doable,” at one point saying he didn’t care about “allies, coalitions, and diplomacy.”
Dick Cheney was literally the mastermind of a global torture apparatus, which is not something your average evil psychopath can say. In 2006, Cheney shot one of his hunting buddies in the face, permanently disfiguring and disabling him, an accident for which he has apparently never apologized.
These ghouls exuded what we now call “toxic masculinity,” and hating them has always been easy. Bush’s secretary of state, Colin Powell, who died today at eighty-four of complications of COVID-19, had quite a different vibe, exuding quiet dignity, deliberative reason, and calm. Yet he was also a war criminal responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings. In that way he was no better than Rumsfeld, Cheney, or Wolfowitz.
Powell, who served in the army for thirty-five years and was national security adviser to Ronald Reagan, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George H.W Bush, and George W. Bush’s secretary of state, was so popular that people in both parties begged him to run for president for decades. Powell has also been celebrated by liberals because, even though he served in Republican administrations, he welcomed the presidency of Barack Obama as “transformative” and opposed Donald Trump, correctly believing him a dangerous racist.
All this is true, but Powell presided over — and used his tremendous credibility to legitimate — a war that he almost certainly knew was wrong. As a result, about half a million people died.
After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Powell privately opposed invading Iraq, warning that doing so would destabilize the region and distract the United States from fighting terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. Powell was isolated from the warmongers in the Bush White House, and often excluded from their meetings, because they knew he wasn’t a true believer in their war.
Precisely for that reason, Bush asked him to be the one to make the case for war at the United Nations (UN), and on February 5, 2003, Powell gave a seventy-six-minute speech to the UN, arguing that Saddam Hussein was a danger to the world, and the United States needed to invade Iraq and take him out. Powell at times looked uncomfortable while doing this, and he later told Barbara Walters in a TV interview that it had been “painful” for him to make the speech. He said in 2011 that the war would be a “blot on his record.”
He’s right. Because Powell was who he was, his speech at the United Nations persuaded many — probably millions — of Americans to support the war. A large section of the DC commentariat who had been ambivalent about the war capitulated in the wake of the speech. Data from several different studies showed that 10 percent of Americans, after seeing Powell’s speech, were moved from opposition to support for the Iraq War. The effect was strongest among Democrats. The speech also caused a 30 percent jump in the number of people who falsely believed that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.
The following year, UN secretary general Kofi Annan called the war in Iraq illegal. Under the UN charter, aggression by member states must be justifiable either as self-defense or sanctioned by the UN Security Council. Many international law experts agreed with Annan. This makes the Bush White House a gang of war criminals in a very precise sense. But Powell should have been given his own special day in the dock at the Hague for his unique role in persuading the public to support the crime.
Iraqis are not mourning Colin Powell. Many, however, are mourning family, friends and neighbors who died as a direct result of Powell’s lapse of integrity. “He lied, lied and lied,” an Iraqi writer and mother of two told the Associated Press today. “He lied, and we are the ones who got stuck with never-ending wars.” Muntadhar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who famously threw a shoe at President Bush during a 2008 news conference, tweeted that he was sad that Powell had died without being tried for his war crimes against the Iraqi people.
Colin Powell’s UN address and its phenomenal impact on public opinion were oddly of the moment. Powell seemed like he could be a character on The West Wing, a Bill Clinton–era TV show created by Aaron Sorkin and beloved by many liberals, in which the ethical agonies of the powerful were portrayed with unbounded empathy. The message was supposed to be a reassuring one: Your administration is run by decent people who are trying their best, and when they do terrible things, it’s because they have no choice. Powell’s Hamlet-like anguish extended that halo to the George W. Bush administration, one of the worst in the country’s history.
In his way, Colin Powell was actually worse than Donald Rumsfeld. He made it appear that even the most murderous and indefensible decisions of our elites, however distressing, are reasonable and inevitable, the result of sober deliberation. He made the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians look justified. He enjoyed the trust of millions, yet he lied. I’m inclined to agree with al-Zaidi: The only sad thing about Colin Powell’s death is that he’ll never be punished for his crimes.