General Colin L. Powell (1937-present), a political superstar of the 1990s, has an extraordinary political and military career. He was promoted to the general rank in 1979 at the age of 41, and then in short order national security advisor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the secretary of state. He was not only the first African American to serve in each of the three important national security assignments, but also the only American in history to hold those three positions. Being propelled onto the national stage for his leading role in the overwhelming military success of Operation Desert Storm (1991), he has since then remained immensely popular among Americans due to his integrity, leadership, and the ability to transcend racial barriers.
Few figures in the past quarter century have played a more prominent role in American foreign and defense policy than Colin Powell, who was deeply engaged in the most important foreign and defense policy debates, such as the uses of American force in the wake of Vietnam, the quest for America’s new role in the post Cold-War world, the interventions in Panama (1989), and the two Gulf Wars (1991 and 2003). However, contrary to his popular image as a war hero, Powell was highly criticized by many top decision-makers, the presidents included, for his resistance to seeing military force as the primary foreign policy instrument in responding to crises. As a result, he was fundamentally marginalized or even isolated in the decision-making processes leading to the two Gulf Wars. Interestingly, his ultra-conservative military belief did not in any way diminish his chance in rising up the ladder of success, not at least until 2004 when George W. Bush asked him to resign as Secretary of State due to policy differences. By closely examining Powell’s military career and personal traits, as well as the evolution of military thinking since Vietnam, this dissertation seeks to unravel the myths surrounding this important, yet enigmatic figure, by analyzing what were the rationales behind Powell’s advocacy of military restraint and its linkage to his career.
There are four major findings.
1. Race did play a role in Powell’s remarkable career and was major factor at numerous points in his rapid ascent. He was specifically selected and nurtured in the early 1970s to serve as evidence of the efforts by the US military to promote racial progress. In the 1990s, his image as a role model for minorities made him a sought-after figure by both the Republicans and the Democrats in order to exploit the race card to political advantage. However, his image as a political superstar obfuscated the fact that he was more a functionary figure than a strategic thinker.
2. Although Powell opposed the notion that military force should be the predominant foreign policy instrument, he closely monitored the president in times of foreign policy crises in which the use of force was considered. When the two Bushes decided to go for military options against Saddam Hussein, Powell quickly compromised, and was swayed to a pro-war stance, making himself useful by helping eliminate barriers to successful military operations. Powell’s anti-interventionist decision-making approach was based on sophisticated political calculations. It was wise for him to bank on the anti-war mentality after Vietnam and he played the role as a prudent and cautious military leader, a move which would bring him enormous popular support and, along with it, vast political capital. On the other hand, the last minute reversal on war against Hussein also saved him from antagonizing the president, the ultimate decision-maker.
3. Powell was famously known as “the reluctant warrior” because he rarely advocated military intervention as the first solution to foreign policy crises. His reluctance to the use of force grew out of the bitter lessons the US military taken from Vietnam, which include that the war power should not be monopolized by civilian leadership, that the US military power is limited, that military force should only be used as a last resort, and that the American support for US military involvement is finite. These lessons were formalized in “the Weinberger Criteria,” a list of conditions that sought to avoid another Vietnam-quagmire by strictly regulating the application of US military force. However, the lessons the military drew from Vietnam were overly generalized or even flawed, thus making the “Weinberger Criteria” inappropriate to be the guiding principle with regard to the use of force. Powell’s insistence on the “Weinberger Criteria” only made his military advice unacceptable to political leadership and marginalized his roles in the decision-making processes of the two Persian Gulf Crises.
4. Powell was politically neutral during his career, never revealing any strong ideology or political inclination, which made him easily acceptable to most Americans, both conservatives and liberals. However, this political neutrality became his major liability when the nation faced a real security crisis posed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. His archrivals in the George W Bush’s administration, the neoconservatives, though pursued a radical military approach that stood directly opposite to the prudent “Weinberger Criteria,” had, at least, strong convictions in American traditional political ideology and ideals. In a time of crisis when strong political leadership was required, President Bush determined to choose the neoconservatives over Powell to lead foreign policy, thus leading to the downfall of one of the greatest soldier-statesmen since Eisenhower, as well as the military conservatism he embodied.