An American Icon

US Secretary of State Colin Powell (2001-2005)

I recently finished what the Los Angeles Times Book Review wrote about General Colin Powell‘s book My American Journey – Colin Powell:

Powell heroically turns racial maelström to magnificence, conquering bigotry to shine the often diminished brilliance of black life into foreign lands and into closed minds closer to home.  In the magical arc of Powell’s triumphant patriotism, Frederick Douglass elbows Thomas Jefferson for a spot at Eisenhower’s side.

Colin Powell was not simply a soldier who dedicated most of his life to serving a cause and creed.  Yes, he is an American, but he is a black American who grew up lower-class in an immigrant family with simple dreams and very little means in the South Bronx of New York City.  The color of his skin or his spiritual affiliation he made absolutely irrelevant, and Powell proved they didn’t matter.  He went about his early life-challenges, through his Army Ranger training and service, through serving in Vietnam, Panama, and the Gulf War; then National Security Advisor to President Reagan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to President George H.W. Bush and President Clinton, and finally to the U.S. Secretary of State under George W. Bush…all in a way that easily could have handed him the Presidency of the United States.  An utterly remarkable and practically incomparable resume and dossier.

If General Powell had run for President three or four times ala FDR, my loyal support would have entailed twelve or sixteen years.  And I am not a Republican or Democrat, or Episcopalian in the least.  The man is plain and simple a leader for humanity who with dignity fulfilled his sworn commitments in spite of a less-than infatuated service with President George W. Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.  The Bush Administration’s approach to the second Iraqi War and invasion sold to the American public, an even more controversial mishandling of terrorist prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, eventually forced Powell out of favor with the Presidential Administration and Capital Hill politics altogether.  Had he not given his sworn oath to fulfill his duties, Powell would have resigned well before 2005.

Powell & Clinton support DADT repeal on Meet The Press September 2010

As much as I greatly admire this man, we do have one difference; one rather big difference.  General Powell was one of the contributors to the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”DADT policy that did not address the full gay-lesbian problem within U.S. military personnel.  Due to the immense complexity of the problem, particularly with housing homosexuals and bisexuals with conservative hyper-phobic heterosexual personnel, Powell typically danced around the debates until 1993.  During the first weeks of Bill Clinton’s entrance into the White House, Clinton made the sexual-orientation the preliminary focus of his campaign promises to supporters.  Given Powell’s background and military service, he understandably had a difficult time making such hullabaloo over what he considered a personal concealment issue.  Yet, following his logic then all military personnel should hide any of their personal religious beliefs as well.  Imagine how that would go over?  Powell shrunk toward desensitization.  In the latter third of his autobiography he sometimes argued that the civil-rights movements for African-Americans in the 1960’s and ’70s were not at all one-in-the-same.  For me, they are definitely one-in-the-same.  Colin Powell’s transition from a Cold War, Vietnam military America into a late 20th and 21st century political American was for him unprecedentedly timid on civil rights and sexual-orientation.  No surprise really, Powell is the stereotypical 4-star General born to be a warrior’s leader.  His soldier mold should not detract, however, from his very real social consciousness; a tuning-fork never louder than during 9/11, the war on terrorism, and America’s military invasion into Iraq for weapons of mass destruction.

I have often heard the cliché “There a two subjects never to get into during formal dinners with dinner guests:  religion and politics.” or something like that.  However, during the few times it was unavoidable, I was surprised how few people knew that Colin Powell was never a Republican.  Most armchair political critics believe with no basis that he was Republican.  He was and always had been a military man first serving the call and duties of his nation; it just so happened that his Capital Hill positions were with three Republican presidential administrations.  The nine months with Clinton’s administration everyone counts as merely a changing of the Guard.  No matter what political party the White House might have been, he saw the invitation as a call to duty he must accept.  Powell writes:

Because I express these beliefs [strong free-enterprise without government interference in entrepreneurial vitality except to protect public safety & prevent distortions of competition by labor or industry] …some people have rushed to hang a Republican label around my neck.  I am not, however, knee-jerk antigovernment.  Government helped my parents by providing cheap public subway systems so they could get to work, and public schools for their children, and protection under the law to make sure their labor was not exploited.

The great domestic political challenge of our time is to reconcile the necessity for fiscal responsibility with the explosive growth in entitlement programs, including Social Security and Medicare, which the needy and the middle-class rely on so heavily.

Until our leaders are willing to talk straight to the American people and the people are willing to accept hard realities, no solution will be found to relieve our children and grandchildren of the crushing debt that we are currently amassing as their inheritance.

While the current call for “less government” is justified, in one role I want government to be vigorous and active, and that is in ensuring the protection of the Constitution to all Americans.

The hard-won civil rights legislation of the 1960s, which I benefited from, was fought for by presently derided liberals, courageous leaders who won these gains over the [Republican] opposition …hiding behind transparent arguments of “states’ rights” and “property rights.”

I have listened to die-hard Republicans call Powell a traitor, that he had lost most of the respect gained from Republicans with Reagan and H.W. Bush.  As much flak as Powell took from the political right, he reminds us that he is not a Democrat either.  “Neither of the two major parties” he writes “fits me comfortably in its present state.”  Powell holds no reservations on either party’s short-comings, “I distrust rigid ideology from any direction, and I am discovering that many Americans feel just as I do.  The time may be at hand for a third major party to emerge to represent this sensible center of the American political spectrum.”  This is exactly why I have great respect for this man.  He is in several ways an unswaying Free-Thinker according to his own conscience and duty to his nation.

I am troubled by the political passion of those on the extreme right who seem to claim divine wisdom on political as well as spiritual matters.  God provides us with guidance and inspiration, not a legislative agenda.  I am disturbed by the class and racial undertones beneath the surface of their rhetoric.  On the other side of the spectrum, I am put off by patronizing liberals who claim to know what is best for society but devote little thought to who will eventually pay the bills.  I question the priorities of those liberals who lavish so much attention on individual license and entitlements that little concern is left for the good of the community at large. 

When 9/11 hit the American homeland, Powell was thrown into an explicit forefront forcing him not only to lead an immediate response on terrorism, but also draw lines in the Oval Office about how best to make that response.  It would prove more than daunting.

VP Cheney & SOD Rumsfeld bypassed completely Powell & Rice but also U.S. & International laws

Based on his autobiography and interviews since the book’s completion in 1995, it is inferred that Colin gained a sour taste for Republican politics his last two years in Washington D.C.  Father Bush’s most highest approval ratings came during the First Gulf War with General Norm Schwarzkopf and General Powell.  The military duo’s superbly created multi-coalition forces put the United States in favor with most of the peaceful nations.  George W. Bush most assuredly recognized later  in 2001 an opportunity when considering Democratic support.  Powell, however, could not have realized what limited roles he would be subjected to in September 2001 when George W. faced the most horrific attack since Pearl Harbor.  After all, it was more the H. W. Bush family who were very grateful for Colin’s loyal support, not the son.  By 2003 it was clear there was no real room in the White House for one more dominant Alpha-male.  H. W. Bush sentiments went only so far with war-waging Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz.  Of those three cabinet members, Rumsfeld had the only military service with just 3 years.  And none of them possessed the international diplomatic dossier during global conflicts as did Colin Powell.

The general from the South Bronx had unprecedented foreign diplomatic experience due to his long illustrious military career; the First Gulf War being his highest accolade.  The ease and speed at which the United States, Great Britain, and more importantly Arab-Muslim nations were able to remove Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait is due in large part (in American terms) to Powell’s polished political understanding of world conflicts and their delicate intricacies.  Any political or military expert today will agree that had Powell and H.W. Bush not consulted and requested Arab-Muslim nations get significantly involved in Saddam Hussein’s removal and later treatment after, Western military machines blasting into Kuwait and engaging Hussein’s Republican Guard would have been diplomatic global suicide.  With Geneva Convention articles and multiple allies both in Europe and the Middle East, had America not taken consideration of coalition ideals it would have turned the Gulf conflict into a Holy War between invading Westerners and highly motivated non-Iraqi militant Muslims.  Therefore, ten years later after his father, George W. Bush’s top officials had a goldmine in Colin Powell; it would be a no-brainer that Powell’s experience and advice would be a necessity, correct?

Addendum 2/14/2015 — the YouTube video of a documentary on Powell’s political relationships with alpha-males Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and former President George W. Bush has been deleted and removed. In its place I’ve selected this short clip regarding the Iraqi intelligence fiasco.

Secretary of State Albright

What many head-hunting Washington politicians were losing in their emotional rhetoric to bring quick justice for the 9/11 murders, were Colin Powell’s long-term warnings of more American lives lost via our military.  These were going to be the very men and women who will potentially pay the last sacrifice.  Few lynch-mob mentalities remember how Powell had long valued the service and sacrifice our military personnel and families make in wartime.  Stepping back to 1997, Powell was almost livid after a comment made by Madeleine Albright in a National Security Team meeting about President Clinton’s election campaign promises to Bosnian Serbs committing genocide.

Powell’s views had not changed one bit since H.W. Bush’s meetings on how to deal with Bosnia.  Colin strongly advised only two realistic responsive options:  either limited air strikes around Sarajevo risking civilian casualties or heavy bombing of Serbs in the theaters of conflict.  But Powell emphasized that neither of these options guaranteed a Serbian change of behavior; only military troops on the ground could do that.  Powell kept reiterating that with air strikes or bombing, Serbian militias would simply hide their tanks and artillery in or around civilian populations and buildings — much like militant terrorists do today.  Powell therefore constantly pushed for a clear political aim first before committing our military men and women.  History had proven to America that military action without a consensus political goal costs too many American lives.  The debate exploded when Madeleine Albright asked Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”  Powell responds this way in his autobiography:

I thought I would have an aneurysm.  American GI’s were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board.  I patiently explained [to Albright and team members] that we had used our armed forces more than two dozen times in the preceding three years of war, peacekeeping, disaster relief, and humanitarian assistance.  But in every one of those cases we had had a clear goal and had matched our military committment to the [political] goal.  As a result, we had been successful in every case.  I told Ambassador Albright that the U.S. military would carry out any mission it was handed, but my advise would always be that the tough political goals had to be set first.

Former NSC member Tony Lake, and member during Vietnam, supported Colin’s position and said “You know, Madeleine, the kinds of questions Colin is asking about goals are exactly the ones the military never asked during Vietnam.”  Several months after 9/11 the ignorance of side-stepping Powell’s wealth of diplomatic and military experience becomes much worse.  The real murderers of 9/11 were all dead; killed in each plane crash.  Therefore, how to deal with the people, organizations, or nations who assisted the dead terrorist pilots are of such paramount importance in a global arena that any violent retaliatory response could have profound consequences in American lives.  The following two clips from the 2008 documentary film Torturing Democracy portrays just how nonconcurrent, devoid of Powell, and with little to no consideration for the global impact the clandestine U.S. response to the War On Terrorism and prisoners was begun by four men in a matter of weeks.


America is now approaching 10 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq since 9/11.  The longest period of war ever in our nation’s history.  Has the fervor of the radical militant terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq been completely eradicated?  No.  Did treatment of pre-trial detainees or prisoners aid in shortening the 10 year war in Afghanistan or Iraq?  Certainly not.  If anything, we have given them more inspiration and shown the world that America is not so much a beacon of light for human rights according to the Geneva Convention — we have become similar to the terrorists themselves.  Colin Powell tried to push home U.N. sensitivities on Capital Hill.  But four Alpha-males in the Bush administration prolonged immeasurably the war on terrorism and so we continue to pay the price in American lives and in fatherless, son-less, daughter-less, spouse-less families.  Not gaining first the full participation of moderate, peaceful, allied Muslim nations was a costly multi-dimensional human and economic Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz mistake.  Current economic defense spending, which compounds the federal deficit today, bears witness to a war waged prematurely without multi-lateral international support to help bear the costs.

The Private Life of Colin Powell

Founder Colin Powell & Chairwoman Alma Powell

Now that Colin Powell is out of federal politics he has dedicated his time and energy to mentoring and educating America’s youth through his cross-sectored program, America’s Promise Alliance.  For many years during and after his political career in Washington D.C., Powell spoke repeatedly about us addressing America’s socio-economic problems as a caring “family” member and citizen of the United States.  Powell sees a serious need in teaching young Americans to benefit from past mistakes, to offer educational and career opportunities for at-risk youth, and continue the civil fight for social and economic parity in America.  He states in no uncertain terms who must mentor this philosophical action:  every single parent in the nation as a Big Citizen.

We can’t just sit around waiting for government to solve some of these intractable social problems that we’ve had for years.  Government has a role to play.  It is time for all of us to live up more fully to the concept of citizenship.  And for those of us who as citizens of this nation have been blessed with treasure, and wealth, and good position, and comfortable homes, and all the blessings of this land, to be a good citizen, to be a big citizen, requires you to do more in the way of sharing with those who are in need.  So that a family that has three wonderful children ought to try to see if they could find three hours a week to share that life with a kid in need who doesn’t have a mentor, who doesn’t get to play in Little League and do the other things that we take for granted.  Somebody in that family who might go tutor a school on an afternoon off from a job, and we’re encouraging corporations to give them that afternoon off.  And so that’s what we mean by big citizenship.

During a 1998 interview for the Academy of Achievement in Washington D.C., Colin was asked to comment about one of his most favorite quotes by the Greek historian Thucydides:  “Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most.”  Powell responded in agreement saying…

One of the great strengths of America, and the reason we are held in such high regard throughout the world, is that people trust our power, and they trust the way in which we use our power.  The more powerful you are, the more people want to trust you with that power.  They would hate to not trust you with that power.

CNN State of the Union

With the advent of mass social networking, Colin Powell was asked in his January 2011 interview on State Of The Union with Candy Crowley, his thoughts on the technological Genie-out-of-the-bottle boom with Facebook, Twitter, and thousands of blog sites, in light of the recent Tucson, AZ shooting tragedy that took six lives and wounded 13 including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Gifford.  Crowley asked, “Did you see a message about this country in those shootings, or did you just see a random, senseless act of violence?  Powell agreed going on to say:

“…in the process of thinking it through and looking at it, everybody started to speak about civility.  That’s a good subject for us to talk about because there has crept in our society and our public dialogue a coarseness, a nastiness, an attack of people who don’t share the same views as you do.  And not just attacking the policies but attacking the individual.  He’s a communist.  He’s a socialist.  He’s un-American.  He ought to be thrown out.  All sorts of nastiness.  And it is not just politicians who are doing this to each other, and, frankly, politics has always been a contact sport in this country.  I mean, they did this back in the 17th and 18th Century, but with all of the cable channels and talk radio and blogs, especially blogs, where people can be anonymous with their nastiness, I think has caused a level of coarseness in our society that we’ve all got to think about.  And politicians should think about it.  All leaders in every aspect of American society should think about it.  And I think television needs to give this some thought.  A lot of this is frankly coming through on television.

I think you can’t put the information revolution back in the bottle. That’s out of the question. But at the same time, we can just act more responsibly in the language we use with each other. And we need to start pushing back on some of the more extreme language that we hear on radio or we see on television or we hear from our politicians.  The reason they do it is because we accept it as people.  So I think the American people have got to start demanding more of our public officials and of the media that is trying to come into our homes every evening.  But, unfortunately, there is a certain attraction to this kind of dialogue.

…the other thing is, with so much information available to us, you can just stay in your little stovepipe of information and only listen to others and talk to others and reflect the views of others who think just like you.  And so we’re not broadening our knowledge base too often by all of the information that’s available. We’re becoming even more stuck in that segment of the knowledge base that reflects our views.

If there are two words that accurately describe General Colin Powell’s sentiment for his nation, they are limitless gratitude.  Despite his skin color and challenges as such growing up, the painful segregation dealt him in the 1960s while serving his country during Vietnam, or the treatment and disregard he received during his service under President George W. Bush including far right-winged Republicans, Colin Powell exudes an American statesman consumed not by a global or national entitlement of arrogance, but instead remains socially conscious, humble and indebted.  It is no wonder why he was held with such high esteem by the international community.

Many Bush-era officials nicknamed Powell “The Reluctant Warrior“, a title in my mind not entirely negative.  Fortunately, those U.S. officials and all anti-Powell advocates represent less than 1% of the informed global population.  In international circles — a greater and more accurate plum-line — Colin Powell is considered the “Neo-Thucydides” — a fiscal humanitarian first, a stoic warrior last.  I couldn’t agree more.

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One thought on “An American Icon

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