“You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people. You will own all their hopes, aspirations and problems. You'll own it all.”
-- Powell statement to US President George
Bush as quoted by
Sometimes it is worth writing someone's obituary ahead of schedule. In the case of politicians, the purpose of an obituary is to serve as a warning against the political zombies – those politicians who are politically spent or have lost their souls. There are many of them around today, e.g., Jose Ma Aznar, Tony Blair, Jack Straw, Kofi Annan, Javier Solana… and Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State.
One could almost feel sorry for General Powell. In 2000, Powell had the useful face and the useful stars, attractive attributes required for electoral purposes. Recruited into office amidst much fanfare, he has duly proven a useful political fig leaf over a foreign policy determined by others. Today he is a discredited spokesman of a bankrupt foreign policy, a token captain remote from the rudder of a foundering ship.
Early on in his career, Powell specialized in whitewash and ass-cover-up operations. Remember My Lai? Well, in 1968 Major Powell was instrumental in whitewashing that sordid episode. During his stint at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell was responsible for pressing ahead with the 1991 Gulf War, a war that was entirely avoidable and against the judgment of the general staff. We know the disastrous consequences of that operation and much has been revealed of his murky past. This article will focus on his record as Secretary of State. (For critical background, see Parry and Solomon's excellent “Behind Colin Powell's Legend” .)
The Big Lie unravels
Powell's recent admission that the evidence he presented in front of the UN Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003 had not been “solid” was the nadir of an increasingly pathetic career. For Powell to admit that there were flaws in his presentation at this late stage of the game, after thousands lay dead and Iraq had been ravaged, is like someone caught in a lie – a mighty big lie – and then only sheepishly admitting that it may have been false. Powell has proven that he doesn't just have thick skin, but skin calloused by experience into a carapace.
The admission by David Kay, the US chief weapons inspector, that Iraq did not possess any WMD pulled the rug right out from under Powell's feet. Before this, Powell had insisted that his accusations leveled against Iraq in front of the UN Security Council had been based on sound intelligence . As late as the end of Feb. 2004, Powell was still defending his position and reacted angrily when he was challenged in front of a Congressional hearing concerning his claims of Iraqi WMDs. What made this event memorable was his angry outburst, punctuated by a disaffected pimp scowl, against a Congressional staffer who had been shaking his head. At that time, Powell was still bluffing it out.
But Kay's revelation made Powell's position untenable, and admissions of error had to be made. On April 2nd, in what turned out to be an exercise in minimalism, Powell finally admitted to having relied on evidence that “was not solid” . This admission is curious; it refers only to a small fraction of the litany of accusations he had leveled in front of the Security Council. The “mobile factories” claim officially hit the dust, but the remaining claims (many of which were by now also discredited) were not mentioned. In fact, the veracity scorecard of all the accusations has proven to be abysmally low: many were just transparent lies, and even the smallest details were either false or deliberately distorted. Even at the time, only the most gullible would have thought that Powell's presentation contained a smoking gun, let alone a justification for war . It is unimaginable that Powell made this presentation without realizing that most of his statements were lies or fabrications. Never mind, it is part of the job, and it has been part of General Powell's job description for the past few decades; selling and pushing wars has been his specialty.
Powell's less-than-candid admission of having relied on shaky intelligence was calculated to signal to the media to lay off this issue. Any further questions about Powell's testimony will be met with hostility and the questioner will be referred to the previous admission about the dubious evidence. The public at large was put on notice: they too would be expected to move on and ignore the gaping omissions in this sordid chapter.
The rats are masters of the ship
Powell should have held ultimate authority over foreign policy, yet he was not allowed the final say in the appointment of reputable diplomats nor to develop a coherent foreign policy. The Secretary of State should also have played an important role in moderating Bush's rash impulses — the man demonstrates a weaponized obtuseness and requires constant monitoring. Instead, Powell has been relegated to a secondary role and merely mouths policy concocted by others. Paul O'Neill, the former Secretary of Treasury, recently described the cabinet meetings chaired by president Bush as ones chaired by a mute and attended by the deaf. A compliant Powell fits in perfectly.
It is clear that Powell didn't have much voice in the appointment of the neocons to policy positions. Appointing the arch-Zionist Elliot Abrams to oversee Middle East policy was as appropriate as appointing a pyromaniac to the fire brigade . The same can be said about John Bolton, Roger Noriega, John Negroponte and other Cheney cronies who can only be described as a wrecking crew, as Powell must have been aware. In addition, Powell faced the ultimate indignity when, for crucial negotiations and foreign policy advice, James Baker, the former Secretary of State, was given an office in the White House.
Powell has often uttered statements about US policy only to be contradicted by one of the rats aboard his ship. Immediately after the coup in Haiti, Powell uttered some statements about respecting a democratically elected government, only to be contradicted the same day by Roger Noriega. Despite Powell's statement, a death squad leader was appointed to head the new Haitian government.
Only indirectly, via
rumors, or through the Woodward exposé, does one hear that Powell had no
input in these appointments, and disagreed with the selection of these
people, but yet he continues in his token post . A
principled response would have required blocking such appointments or
resigning; yet, his clinging on to the job is revealing.
Powell's term as Secretary of State has produced some searing memories. His role in putting the US on course for a war against Iraq, pushing (or not opposing) the neocon agenda, the undermining of international law, and the signaling of “green lights” to whatever Ariel Sharon sought to do, are infamous for the craven and callous role the “head diplomat” chose to play.
1. Green light #1: Ariel Sharon crushes Jenin
In April 2002, Ariel Sharon sought once again to smash any possibility for the emergence of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. This was accomplished by a massive military onslaught against Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza. Throughout the Occupied Territories, the Palestinian Authority was uprooted, destroyed, and its security apparatus dismantled. The operation culminated in the bloody siege of Jenin where an unknown number of Palestinians were killed, and significant portions of the Jenin refugee camp were flattened. Prof. Ilan Pappe called this onslaught “an unprecedented episode of cruelty in the unsavory history of the occupation” .
The international outcry about the Israeli offensive against the civilian population forced the United States to react, but only in a way that made it abundantly clear that it had granted a de facto “green light”. Instead of proceeding to Jerusalem immediately and firmly, Powell proceeded at a snail's pace, taking a circuitous route via Morocco, Egypt… and only arrived in Jerusalem after Israeli troops had flattened Jenin and killed many throughout the occupied territories. The King of Morocco even asked Powell why he was visiting him instead of going straight to Jerusalem! Once in Jerusalem, Powell didn't demand a cessation of hostilities, and his cordial public relations with Sharon signaled no opprobrium. In a grotesque gesture, Powell even suspended his mission for some days following a suicide bombing. Powell's role was not one aiming to constrain America's client or one that would have given credibility to Bush's call for restraint. Powell was playing the role that has served him so well over the years, that is, whitewashing and covering up the Israeli depredations.
To make matters worse, the US effectively sabotaged the UN commission charged with investigating the mass killings at Jenin. First, the US attempted to stack the commission in such a way that it would be favorable to Israel, e.g., appointing military experts and some dubious diplomats. Finally, it vetoed the commission altogether. Powell thus signaled that no one would have legal recourse or even obtain an investigation into Israeli mass human rights abuses. Thus, once again, Israel obtained a “green light” and a free “get out of jail card”.
2. More ass-cover-up operations.
The US has sanctioned the building of the massive land-grab wall inside the West Bank, even funding most of its construction. When international outcry protested the wall as a violation of basic international law, Israel did its best, with American assistance, to stop the International Court of Justice (ICJ) hearings about it. Powell's role in sabotaging the ICJ hearings and the eventual muzzling of these proceedings are another dark blot on the American reputation. First, the US sought to pressure many countries to submit advance objections to the ICJ hearing on the specious grounds that this would “politicize” the issues surrounding the construction of the wall. Second, Israel requested a delay in the issuance of the State Dept.'s human rights report until after the ICJ hearings. Israelis feared that the report could contain criticism of the wall, and sought to prevent this information's inclusion in the proceedings. True to form, Powell was complicit in delaying the publication of the report; it was finally released a week after the ICJ hearings, more than a month after it was originally scheduled for publication. Finally, the US is currently attempting to delay the ICJ's rulings on the matter until it will be useless, i.e., months after the wall has been completed.
3. Blessing Sharon's unilateral plan, and the second “green light”.
On April 14, 2004, Sharon's unilateral “disengagement” plan received Bush's official blessing. Bush accepted Israel's unilateral annexation of West Bank land, the removal of the Palestinian refugees' right to return, and veto power over future negotiations with Palestinian representatives. Furthermore, although Israelis will claim to “withdraw” from Gaza, the proposals are nothing of the sort. Gaza will remain the world's largest concentration camp, with no access to neighboring countries, no ports, no airports, and even an Israeli veto on the Palestinian leadership.
The Washington meeting of Bush and Sharon must be viewed in the context of the assassination of Sheik Yassin, Hamas' quadriplegic spiritual leader, on March 22, 2004. Sharon personally directed the assassination! No problem, the US vetoed a very mild UN rebuke against the assassination, and Sharon was still welcome in Washington a few days later. With Washington's official blessing for his unilaterally imposed plan, Sharon returned to Israel on April 16, 2004; the next day the newly appointed leader of Hamas, Dr. Rantisi, was assassinated. Nothing could make clearer the tacit collusion between the US and Israel in elimination of the Palestinian leadership. Powell signaled a green light and warded off any UN and/or international condemnation.
Once again, Powell's role in these events has been appalling. Intermittently before and after Bush's blessing of Sharon's unilateral plan, Powell berated Palestinians for not clamping down on “terrorism”. Arafat and his cronies barely control one outhouse in Ramallah, so any demand to clamp down on “terrorism” is exceptionally cynical. Powell also stated that the Palestinian Authority should not share power with Hamas. Given that Hamas is a legitimate political group that may now represent the views of the majority of the Palestinians, it is callous for Powell to threaten a veto of the composition of Palestinian representation.
Powell's dismal performance continued early in May seated next to the insufferable Kofi Annan and Javier Solana. This “Quartet” meeting was meant to revive the defunct “road map”, but from Powell's statements, it is clear that this is another cruel hoax. Powell suggested that Palestinians should view Sharon's plan as an opportunity, and that they should embrace it. NB: Powell was suggesting that Palestinians should see the bright side of unilateral annexation of their land, the construction of the land-grab wall, the forfeiture of the refugees' right to return, and the imposition of a malevolent apartheid solution! Powell revealed a few more details about the Sharon's US-anointed plan. Israel and the US would from now on negotiate with Jordan and Egypt about control over Palestinian interests and affairs. These countries would be drawn in as partners in the imposition of the new plan, and they would supplant Palestinian representation. Finally, with a straight face, Powell concurred with Kofi Annan's statement that UNSCR 242 and 194 would remain the basis for the “road map” negotiations. However, one can only interpret Annan and Powell's statements to be correct in the following perverse sense. While previous attempts at negotiating peace between Israel and Palestinians suggested that UNSCR 242 (1967 occupied areas) would be a minimum basis for a solution, the current suggestion by US/Israel is that the West Bank and Gaza will represent a maximal solution to the “Palestinian question”. Powell's statements are steeped in hypocrisy.
It seems that every time president Bush utters the word “vision” he chuckles. It must be a private joke similar to Bush Senior's disdainful reference to the “vision thing”. Some months ago Bush stated that he had a “vision of a Palestinian state”. Given his endorsement of the unilaterally imposed plan, Bush stated on May 8th that his vision had slipped a bit behind schedule, and of course, this was due to the Palestinians' own fault, i.e., due to “terrorism”. Taking Powell's statements into account one can only infer that a Palestinian state, or any meaningful rights for the Palestinians, is permanently off the agenda. Another vision postponed – permanently.
4. A Black man promoting apartheid
Last month some black Brazilian students traveling through Europe were astonished to find out that Powell is an African American, and one of them asked if he had been afflicted by Michael Jackson's skin disease. Perhaps even more astonishing is that a black man has been instrumental in giving the green light for an extreme apartheid solution to be imposed on the Palestinian people. As Ronnie Kasrils, the South African Minister for Water, stated recently, South African apartheid seems benign when compared to the Israeli occupation and the dispossession of the Palestinians throughout the area. What Israel is currently implementing is a malevolent apartheid solution. That is, though the walls are meant to demarcate Palestinian areas, their intent is to create such harsh conditions that they will drive people off the land . When Ranaan Gissin, Sharon's spokesman, was asked about the wall recently, he laughed while suggesting that this was “a temporary measure.” It can only be interpreted as temporary, if the wall will be torn down after the Palestinian population has been driven off the land.
5. Oh, he favors democracy!
The neocons have suggested that Middle Eastern countries have to modernize, and to become democracies. Powell also played along with this charade and the State Department issued a report on what countries in the Middle East need to do, and US officials attended a meeting in the area to push the same theme. The State Dept. even coined a grand title for this rather empty initiative, i.e., the Greater Middle East Initiative. Note, that while the US was “encouraging” Middle Eastern countries to democratize the US was involved in the overthrow of the democratically elected government in Haiti. It is clear the US armed and trained a Haitian gang led by notorious death squad leaders of yesteryear. How could Powell square the US's desire for “democracy” in the Middle East when it is at the same time promoting coups against democratically elected governments in Latin America?
6. And now the Europeans must shut up!
The US recently instigated an OSCE meeting, and on April 29, 2004, it issued a call to fight anti-Semitism in Europe. Of course, Powell was on hand to reinforce the message that criticism of Israel may be construed as anti-Semitism. Mr. Powell stated: “It is not anti-Semitic to criticize the state of Israel, but the line is crossed when the leaders of Israel are demonized or vilified by the use of Nazi symbols.” It seems that pointing out serious Israeli crimes against Palestinians, and Ariel Sharon's role in directing them may come under the OSCE's scrutiny. But what is worse, for president Bush to call Sharon a “man of peace” or for critics to call Sharon a war criminal?
Most of the OSCE countries have become ethnically diverse, and it is likely that in many of the member countries racism, religious intolerance, and even violence may be manifest. It is also likely that the discrimination and violence against Muslim/Arab people is rife and more acute than anti-Semitism. So, it is odd that the OSCE meeting focused on discrimination and violence that may be less acute and chronic than that directed against Muslim/Arab minorities. In the very least, the OSCE working group should have demanded an inclusion of all groups that are currently threatened in the coverage of its statement. However, due to US pressure, the OSCE has focused exclusively on anti-Semitism, and European critics of Israeli depredations have been put on notice that their condemnation of Israel could one day be labeled anti-Semitism. Powell delivered this veiled threat against those opposed to the Israeli occupation and its violence against Palestinians.
7. The token captain attacks a fat rat!
The occupation of Iraq is a major disaster and the situation is unraveling before our eyes. Of course, the justifications for the war were absurd, and now the cost of the occupation is becoming astronomical. Add to this an unprecedented level of hostility against the US throughout the world, and suddenly the position of the promoters of this war is becoming increasingly tenuous. We already detect infighting among the cheerleaders of the war, and Powell even attacked Wolfowitz, albeit indirectly. Of course, any critical statement must be deniable, and it was up to one of Powell's aides to compare Wolfowitz to “Lenin”!  It seems that Powell wants to dissociate himself from the neocon warmongers, but it may be a little too late.
Generals and diplomacy
Military officers aren't trained in the intricacies and nuances of diplomacy which comprises a very different form of warfare. The military are trained to follow orders and accomplish tasks that are very narrow in scope. It is for this reason that military officers, not withstanding the brilliance of their careers, must not be appointed to the top diplomatic post. In Powell's case, one must remember that his only contribution to military doctrine was to advocate the “overwhelming use of force” – notice the genius required to suggest such a strategy! His background certainly didn't indicate that he would be a suitable candidate for the top foreign policy position. His appointment may have much to do with the subsidiary role given to diplomacy during the current Bush regime.
Just like the previous General appointed as a Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, Powell's term in office has been a disaster. Instead of leading and creating a coherent foreign policy, working actively within a multilateral framework, Powell allowed himself to be dragged along into a policy of confrontation, unilateralism, disdain for international law, and predisposed to engage in “preventive wars”. The consequence is evident for all to see. At the UN, the only countries siding with the US at the General Assembly are Israel, Nauru and the Marshall Islands (even Dominica abstains these days!). Now, any architect of American diplomacy must be proud of this accomplishment! Fairly soon, Americans will not be able to travel in the Middle East and significant portions of Africa without an element of fear.
Homo tragi pathetico
On April 27th Powell stated that he was not going to resign, but his aide, Mr. Wilkerson, revealed that Powell is unlikely to seek a second term if Bush is reelected, and “said the Secretary of State had spent much of his time doing damage control around the world for the actions of his colleagues […] and he was physically and mentally tired” . Powell went from presidential hopeful to a faded star in less than four years. What is in store for him now? Sell armaments for the Carlyle group; write another tome of his memoirs receiving a handsome sum in advance; or will he go on the lecture circuit to receive a deferred bribe?
If Powell had played a part in a tragicomedy, then one would at least have found something to laugh about. Alas, there is nothing comical about Powell's entire career, and the man can best be described as a tragipathetic character. That is, the tragedy has to do with the many corpses in Vietnam, Iraq, Palestine and Haiti; the pathetic part has to do with Powell's willingness to play along in these sordid affairs. One would almost like to say R.I.P., though this would not be well deserved, especially since he was D.O.A, dead on arrival.
Paul de Rooij can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org (NB: all attachments will be automatically deleted). ©2004 Paul de Rooij
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