Gen. Colin Powell flipped the script on the right’s blind support of foreign wars

By: Rachel Marsden

PARIS — One could say that there was a “pre” and “post” Gen. Colin Powell for the American right. It’s this ideological evolution of many on the right that should ultimately be remembered as the four-star general’s enduring legacy, sparked in that historical moment in 2003 for which Powell repeatedly spent the last several years expressing regret, right up until his death this week at age 84.

Some of us who were working in Washington, D.C., at think tanks closely associated with the Republican Party and the George W. Bush White House still recall that fateful day of Feb. 5, 2003, when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, took center stage at a United Nations Security Council meeting. Holding up a small vial for visual effect, Powell evoked the damage that such a small quantity of anthrax — the likes of which Iraq continued to possess and develop, he claimed — could wreak in the world.

In the post-9/11 era, the U.S. government had a window of time to benefit from public goodwill and trust in the face of justifiable massive public fear of terrorism. Public opinion gave U.S. intelligence agencies, and the decision-makers tasked with acting on their findings, unprecedented leeway. Arguing the details of which precise actors were – or could potentially be – responsible for acts of terrorism directed at America was viewed as a perilous exercise in triaging out humble bumblebees from killer hornets.

Any risk of terrorism was worth neutralizing in the view of public opinion. Middle Eastern terrorist actors all seemed fair game – all except Saudi Arabia, which was spared being framed in a bad light by authorities, despite the fact nearly all the 9/11 hijackers were citizens of the Kingdom. And the very definition of terrorism itself was granted a free license for liberal interpretation. Hence, when President Bush and his cabinet — including Powell — identified Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, or any other traditional U.S. foes as representing a terrorist threat, public pushback was limited to mostly leftists still bitter about Bush having beaten former Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election.

But Powell had for years been on a perpetual apology tour for his moment that helped grease the skids for the Iraq invasion. It seems that the poor outcome of that intervention evidently led to soul-searching about whether the threat that he helped to sell was truly worth the cost in lives — both American military and Iraqi civilian — and destruction that we witness even 20 years later in Iraq. “It’s a blot … and will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now," Powell was already telling ABC News in 2005.

And in 2008, when the late John McCain, who rarely saw a country whose interests diverged from America’s that he wasn’t eager to invade, was running as the Republican presidential candidate against Democrat Barack Obama, Powell said that he didn’t like the direction in which the GOP was heading. It was a clear volte-face from the bandwagon on which Powell helped America charge into wars that, with hindsight, seem infinitely more debatable.

This regret is perhaps best articulated through remarks made by four-star U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, the former commander of NATO allied operations, who said in a 2007 speech at the Commonwealth Club of California that the U.S. reaction to 9/11 was a “a policy coup” in which “some hard-nosed people took over the direction of American policy, and they never bothered to inform the rest of us.” He explained that a memo out of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s office stated at the time that there was already a plan in place to “attack and destroy the governments of seven countries in five years”: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran.

Before Powell, there was almost blind faith on the political right in American defense policy. Since then, the disappointing results of these foreign military interventions, due to ill-defined missions and the discovery of public manipulation by political leaders and the foreign policy establishment, have created a generation of highly vocal war-wary conservatives.

Now, when an American president tries to make a case for foreign conflict against Russia, China, Iran, Syria, or any other nation that has opposing interests — the kind of hard-sell effort that Powell made against Iraq in 2003 — it’s the right that’s more likely to oppose foreign wars not partisans on the left.

And all that is in large part thanks to Colin Powell.