Powell is sometimes remembered as the man who could have stopped the invasion of Iraq but lacked the spine or the political infighting skills to do so. This is unfair and historically inaccurate. Easily forgotten now, the idea that Saddam Hussein posed a unique threat to global security was widely shared at the time of invasion — including by Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer and Adam Schiff, to name a few. The weapons of mass destruction dossier that Powell presented to the U.N. Security Council on the eve of the Iraq war had the full confidence of the intelligence community.
(As for political infighting, it’s worth remembering that Powell effectively protected his friend and deputy, Richard Armitage, by remaining publicly silent when he knew that Armitage had leaked inadvertently the name of the C.I.A. officer Valerie Plame to the press.)
As it is, Powell did have a long private conversation with Bush, outlining the real challenge of invasion: A broken postwar Iraq would be America’s to pay for and fix. That was the right advice, and it called for meticulous planning for the day after Saddam’s downfall.
Instead, Bush assigned the task of reconstruction to Donald Rumsfeld, who shrugged at postwar looting in Baghdad as little more than exuberant expressions of freedom. More destructive was the cocksure U.S. viceroy in Iraq, Paul Bremer, who reported to Rumsfeld and who helped lay the ground for the insurgency by disbanding the Iraqi Army. (Bremer has his own version of events.) Powell, who said he was never consulted on the decision, hardly deserves the blame.
Yet Powell’s performance as secretary also reflected both the virtues and limitations of the system that had embraced him and that he came to embody for both better and worse.
Powell came of age at a time when American systems worked. His parents arrived in the United States from Jamaica through open doors. He received, by his own account, a remarkably good public school education. The Army, integrated for only about a decade when he joined it, saw his promise and promoted him swiftly. He oversaw the American war machine when it was at the zenith of its power, decimating the supposedly formidable Iraqi military with shock-and-awe-inducing swiftness in the Persian Gulf war. The adulation with which the U.S. public received him seemed to announce the long-awaited post-racial future.
In this sense, Powell uniquely synthesized two strains of American identity that had long been at odds: the radical promise of 1776, that all of us, irrespective of background, are indeed created equal and can rise as far as our talents will take us; and the sturdy traditionalism that goes with being the product of a military hierarchy.