Lots of us had highest hopes about Colin Powell. I was one of many who thought he should be president because I considered he would be a splendid leader for America. This was the man, after all, who wrote in his autobiography that he was "angry that so many of the sons of the powerful and well-placed . . . managed to wangle slots in reserve and National Guard units" to avoid the draft during the Vietnam war. Yay! Let’s hear it for Colin, the man who speaks his mind and despises the cowardly sons of the rich who dishonourably wriggled out of serving their country.
But after he decided against running for president he couldn’t resist the offer to work for a man whose daddy had wangled him a non-combat slot in a National Guard unit during the Vietnam war. OK; so my formerly unqualified admiration for C Powell took a bit of a hit. But I recollected he had written that he distrusted those in government who "devote little thought to who will eventually pay the bills". Good, good; because that was evidence he would not support trickery and irresponsibility in budget management. Indeed he declared himself "a fiscal conservative with a social conscience". Wonderful. Then there was his affirmation that "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". Now you’re talking, my dear sir. What a splendid, candid and damning rejection of extremism. It was obvious that this man could never be part of an administration that contained or drew support from right wing zealots obsessed with religious righteousness.
I was wrong. The Bush administration doesn’t only draw support from right wing zealots; it is packed with them. And Colin Powell seems comfortable with Bush and his ultra-right wing weirdoes. Although he had written "I distrust rigid ideology from any direction" it appears he can accept ideological inflexibility, and his bizarre support for the Bush war on Iraq sits strangely with his former liberal views.
When Powell gave his supposedly definitive speech for war on Iraq to the UN Security Council on February 5 it was greeted at first with the deference due to a former general who knew what he was talking about because he had been thoroughly briefed (we thought). In essence he declared that Iraq possessed actual weapons of mass destruction; that Baghdad was trying to deceive UN weapons inspectors and conceal WMD from them; and that Saddam Hussein was harbouring terrorists, including members of the al-Qaeda organisation. (He noted specifically that there had been "decades of contact between al-Qaeda and Saddam". Of course al-Qaeda was not even formed a decade ago; but we’ll have to let that pass.)
At first it was gripping stuff. He came into the hall on a wave of enthusiasm. The British foreign minister, a silly little man called Jack Straw, eagerly embraced him, and many other delegates, although behaving with more dignity than Straw, displayed approval for the person who epitomized the reasonable, let’s-talk-about-this, moderate face of the Bush administration. Or so they thought.
But in the words of Gary Younge of the Guardian newspaper: "The man on whom so many European hopes of reining in the excesses of George Bush’s administration were pinned had apparently changed sides." For once I disagree with Mr Younge, because Powell didn’t change sides at the time of his UN dog and pony show. He nailed his colours to the mast of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle, and the rest of the zealots when he realised quite early in the Bush administration that if he didn’t toe their line he would have to quit. If he had done so, and explained his reasons, there might have been no Iraq slaughter and shambles, such could have been his influence on the American people. But when power waves a seductively beckoning hand to a person who would feel incomplete and even inadequate without the trappings and deference of office, just watch the panting dash to obey the summons. So Powell betrayed his principles and demonstrated he is just another grubby trickster who, alas, is prepared to suppress the truth and promote the false. His recent visit to Iraq was a farcical fiasco of PR mumbo jumbo and personal insincerity.
"If you want evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction", he declared on September 14, "come to Halabja and see it." Quite so. But the evidence of WMD was of a poison gas attack by Iraq forces fifteen years ago. There is no doubt that the attack was an atrocity, a war crime of immense and disgusting evil. What happened was this: at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, on 13 March 1988, the Iranians captured the Kurdish town of Halabja, just inside the Iraqi border, helped by Kurdish militias. Two days later "the Iraqi air force attacked the town with bombs of cyanide or nerve gas and killed 4000 people, mainly civilians." (‘The Longest War’ by Dilip Hero.)
What is kept quiet by Washington is that the previous year the assistant defence secretary, Richard Armitage (now Powell’s deputy in the State Department), publicly stated "We can’t stand to see Iraq defeated", which was a flat statement of support that Saddam Hussein took at face value, as well he might. After all, Ronald Reagan, President during the period of the Iraq-Iran war (1981-1989), ordered removal of Iraq from the US ‘list of nations that support international terrorism’ in 1983, just before Donald Rumsfeld, as his special envoy, went to call on Saddam Hussein carrying a message of support from Washington for his war against Iran. Concurrently a letter was conveyed to the leaders of the Gulf States indicating that the US would regard an Iraqi defeat as "contrary to US interests" (Washington Post, 4 Jan 84). No sane person condones the hellish poisoning of 4000 people, but if you are a dictator and the strongest power in the world tells you formally that it wants you to win the war you’re fighting, you might just be convinced that you can get away with anything you want.
The Economist of 26 March 1988 headlined its article on the Halabja bombing "If you can think of something even beastlier, do it", which sums the whole thing up. But Saddam Hussein did get away with it. There was a bit of international tooth-sucking, but nothing from the Reagan administration. And who was National Security Adviser to President Reagan at the time of the Halabja massacre? Why, it was the humane, soft-hearted General Colin Powell, he of the emotional evidence about atrocities in Halabja . And what did he advise the president to do? Nothing.
In Halabja on September 14 he said "there was no effort on the part of the Reagan administration to either ignore [the massacre] or not take note of it" (Washington Post), which is despicable doublespeak. Then he told the press "It was roundly condemned" (Chicago Tribune), which is an out-and-out downright damned lie. This is sickening. Powell was highly emotional during his showbiz visit to Halabja, telling the relatives of the dead that "the world should have acted sooner" and lighting candles in memory of the victims. But where was his compassion in 1988? How many candles did he light, then, for victims of Saddam Hussein’s atrocities? Why didn’t he advise sanctions against Iraq, then, because there had been gross human rights violations involving chemical weapons? Why did he not propose prosecution of Saddam Hussein on the grounds of vicious criminality and heinous offences against international law? He was, after all, the National Security Adviser to the President of the United States. What a canting humbug.
Powell flew most of the 150 miles to Halabja in an aerial cavalcade of helicopters. His helo and the backup were in the centre, the entourage in others, then an ambulance, all surrounded by a phalanx of Apaches. Countries have gone to war with less firepower. The whole exercise was a squalid sham. It was reported by the Chicago Times that "Some of those gathered for Powell’s remarks held English-language signs . . . [such as] "My family was lost to Saddam’s WMD" . . . . , which audience members said were distributed by a local civic organization." A local civic organisation, eh? One that produced neatly-printed banners in English for the Powell visit that just happened to mention the words "Saddam’s WMD" for the cameras? Oh, come off it. (But of course it played well on US television networks, which was the aim of this grubby charade.)
After his disgraceful and evasive performance in Halabja, Powell flew back to Baghdad just after "three soldiers were wounded in an ambush . . . One soldier had his leg amputated . . . two others were less seriously wounded in the legs . . ." (AP). So where did the emotional, candle-lighting General Powell go? Directly to the bedsides of the wounded soldiers? Well, no. He went to the former palace of Saddam Hussein, into which enormous complex and grounds Iraqis are forbidden entry unless they are servants or members of the non-elected Council. (Just like old Saddam times, really, before Iraq was, well, liberated.) He did have one meeting outside the heavily fortified compound (in which there is round-the-clock electrical power and air-conditioning, unlike the rest of the city and entire country) but he didn’t go to see any wounded American soldiers. Why?
This is the man who wrote approvingly in his autobiography of a soldier who said "I’m not afraid because I’m with my family" — meaning his army comrades — which, Powell declared, "never fails to touch me". He was emphasising that the army is a family, as all armies are, for which I can vouch from personal experience. So why didn’t Powell go to visit a member of his military family who was having his leg cut off? It would have only taken him half an hour. Would it have been too much to ask that General Powell might pop in to the hospital to give a word of cheer to a wounded soldier, tormented by pain and the dreadful knowledge that he will be a cripple for the rest of his life?
Let me tell you, here and now and without any fear of contradiction, that a wounded American soldier seeing General Colin Powell at his bedside would receive an injection of hope and vitality that would be better than any medical treatment. So far as American soldiers are concerned the man would be the ultimate morale-booster. It would have been wonderful for any of these wounded soldiers had this man given just five minutes of his time to say hello. But no. He lit candles for long-dead Kurds in a pathetic public relations pantomime but couldn’t spare a few moments to see his soldiers — his family — who were maimed while he was prancing round for the cameras at Halabja.
Then the new, dishonourable, Powell had to try to forge a link with his war on Iraq, using the 1988 atrocity as justification. He asked, rhetorically, if Iraq had "lost interest" in "such weapons" in fifteen years, and answered himself by saying "The international community did not believe so". This is a downright damned insult to the intelligence of all of us. The international community did not believe Iraq had these weapons, and wanted the UN inspectors to be able to carry on their task of discovering the truth. They did not join the Bush war on Iraq. Two prime ministers, of Italy and Spain, went against their people and gave personal support. Blair of Britain and Howard of Australia blindly backed Bush to the hilt. And a score of tiny countries, cajoled, bullied or bribed by Washington, stood on the sidelines and contributed nothing but their names to a list of ‘supporters’. They were not "the international community". The hell with you, Powell; you are telling us lies, and we don’t like it.
The drivelling platitudes uttered by Powell at a joint news conference in Baghdad with Bremer, the insensitive and culturally ignorant administrator of Iraq, typified the surreal approach of the occupying power to events. Powell was asked "have you or will you meet anyone who is unhappy with the US presence?" Of course he hadn’t, and he wouldn’t. In reply he said that he had been reading "the daily reporting that I get in Washington" and that "more time and . . .energy . . should be given to the good stories." How absurd ; but not as absurd as his claim about liberation. "Our history over the last 50, 60 years is quite clear" he said. "We have liberated a number of countries . . " Like Vietnam, Somalia and Haiti, I suppose. Does he never listen to himself? Have his former common sense and decency been completely swamped by his lust for power? He might zoom round Iraq lighting candles, but the light of his honour has been extinguished.
BRIAN CLOUGHLEY writes about defense issues for CounterPunch, the Nation (Pakistan), the Daily Times of Pakistan and other international publications. His writings are collected on his website: www.briancloughley.com.
He can be reached at: email@example.com