The gazetting of Colin Powell as U.S. Secretary of State is probably the least criticized and the most praised appointment that president-elect George Bush has made, or will make. It is the most praised because it appears to symbolize the Bush campaign's "rainbow" approach, and to that extent to keep the promise of bipartisan healing that is already beginning to sound somewhat formulaic.
It is the most praised because Colin Powell -- a self-described "fiscal conservative and social liberal" -- has in those five words summarized the majority opinion of the Washington press corps. And it is the most praised because former general Powell possesses all those qualities, of poise and fluency, and of apparent confidence and ease with matters global, that his boss so conspicuously lacks. (The Senate confirmation hearings look like a fiesta of back-slapping and respectful questions.) It is the most praised, finally, because as an appointment it displays that element of glamour and dash and personality that the other cabinet announcements, of near-indistinguishable and monochrome insipidity, so conspicuously lack.
However, being drenched with praise and being immune from criticism are not quite the same thing. And the failure even to consider the case against Colin Powell is not just the sign of an unwillingness to ask questions. It is the sign of a failure of memory. It's not as if we have not met this man before, as national security advisor and chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and had a chance to gauge his form. Some examples:
In 1968, as a staff army major in Vietnam, Colin Powell played a direct role in suppressing the inquiry into the My Lai massacre, and into related atrocities against civilians.
As a White House fellow during the Watergate years he earned a reputation -- but only for keeping his mouth shut.
As a military assistant to Caspar Weinberger during the Reagan administration, he helped to deceive Congress about the trading in heavy weapons with Iran, about the exchange of those weapons for hostages, and about the diversion of the illicit proceeds to finance another illicit operation in Nicaragua.
In Panama, in 1989, he helped shape an operation that totally disregarded international law and took many civilian lives.
During the Gulf War, he strongly opposed any military help for the Kurdish and Shia rebellions against Saddam Hussein.
In the Bosnian conflict, he publicly opposed any intervention against Slobodan Milosevic and his forcible creation of a "Greater Serbia."
As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Bill Clinton, he repeatedly intervened to influence political decisions, not only about the Balkans but about the right of homosexuals to serve in the military.
It might seem at first glance that this record is contradictory; hawkish here and dovish there: cautious in some cases and bold in others. In fact, it shows a consistent adherence to the preservation of "the military" as a separate caste within American society and -- more to the point -- within American politics. It also shows a consistent mediocrity in judgment, and a recurring strain of moral cowardice.
The first point is probably the most important one. Ever since Harry Truman told the armed forces to desegregate and to do it right away (the necessary condition for Mr. Powell's career in the first place) and ever since he sacked general Douglas MacArthur for trying to run his own war in Korea, the vital principle of civilian control of the military has been steadily eroding. But never as fast as under the Clinton administration, during which a weak man, ashamed of his draft-dodging past, shirked any confrontation with men in uniform.
You may well think that homosexuals should not serve in the armed forces; the fact remains that Mr. Clinton was elected on a clear promise to change that policy, and was faced with the clearest insubordination from his senior officers one of whom (Colin Powell by name) was conspicuous. Again, you may not think that the United States had any business helping the Bosnians, but this would be a decision for the president and Congress to make, and the Joint Chiefs to faithfully implement. Colin Powell's mutinous attitude toward the idea of intervention led him to the extraordinary step of publishing an op-ed article saying what he thought U.S. foreign policy ought to be.
Since we now have another weak personality as president, and since certain crucial decisions -- such as the go-ahead for a "Star Wars" missile defense system -- may be taken almost by default, it is a matter for concern that there is no secretary of state likely to counterbalance the military-industrial lobby.
This objection would be a strong one even if Mr. Powell had a better track record. But this is the man who opposed sending a few ships to the Persian Gulf before the invasion of Kuwait, even as a deterrent. This is the man who quarrelled with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, arguing that the Serbian army was as powerful and formidable as the Vietnamese. For him, the armed forces are a gleaming and expensive elite, to be maintained at vast cost but not to be dirtied by any deployment -- let alone in the dubious business of peacekeeping. The odd ceremonial workout in Grenada or Panama, against negligible or contemptible foes, is of course perfectly all right if not indeed necessary for morale.
In the case of his two shameful cover-ups, in Vietnam and over the Iran-Contra affair, Mr. Powell again appears to have put the prestige of the military above any inconvenient ethical or legal concerns. In neither case was ignorance a possible defense. In Vietnam, junior soldiers and officers had come forward with courageous testimony about hideous actions against civilians. In the case of Iran-Contra, the policy of not supplying weapons to Iran was well-known and of long standing.
In both instances, Mr. Powell seems to have acted to gratify immediate superiors and to short-circuit any unpleasantness. In both cases, he seems to have been rewarded for his correct guess about what an eager and ambitious junior was expected to do. All of this is well-known around Washington, and when I bring it up it's not as if people deny any of it. But it doesn't seem to count in the present anesthetic atmosphere.
So we appear to be embarking on an era when the title of "team player" will be the highest definition, and when attitudes quite irrelevant to diplomacy (such as a correct view of inner-city youth, of role-models for same, and of the "war on drugs") will be expected to take precedence, and when bureaucratic conformism will give the necessary appearance of an orderly and smooth transition.
The United States Congress is about to swallow its remaining pride, by embracing for these reasons a man who more than once planned to keep it in the dark and circumvent its constitutional responsibilities. The press, too, appears to feel it must do its bipartisan bit for consensus and good feeling. This is what happens to a star-obsessed culture which judges peoples' actions by their reputations instead of the other way around.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation. His most recent book is No One Left To Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family.
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