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Colin Powell’s Trump Problem

When the compromised speak of judgment, the voice of credibility vanishes. In its place, a certain niggling sense of hypocrisy and weakness prevails. Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell is one of those of those compromised voices. He presided over a redundant State Department before the pressures of the Pentagon and Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, keen to initiate an invasion of Iraq. He oversaw the bankruptcy of the Republican ideal before the nibbling sharks of neoconservatism within the administration of President George W. Bush. But that has not prevented him from being cavalier in assessing the legacy of Donald Trump.

In an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Sunday, Powell came across with an account pickled by the language of patriotic management and boastfulness. “I was a Republican who was Ronald Reagan’s national security advisor. I was a Republican who worked for George Herbert Walker Bush, and worked for George W. Bush. I’m a moderate Republican who believes that we should have strong foreign policy, strong defence policy, that we have to look out for our people, and we ought to work hard making sure we’re one country and one team.”

He took issue with the reticence and gingerly approach adopted by the Republicans to the president, who “are holding back because they’re terrified of what will happen to any one of them if they speak out.” They needed to “get a grip, and when they see things that are not right they need to say something about it, because our foreign policy is in shambles right now in my humble judgment.”

Those are the words from a man who clumsily added several paving stones on the road to war against Iraq in the United Nations on February 5, 2003. If a shambles was what was needed in US foreign policy, Powell was going to do his bit. His address was an effort to furnish delegates “with additional information… about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction as well as Iraq’s involvement in terrorism, which is also the subject of resolution 1411 and other earlier resolutions.” The picture drawn by Powell was of an Iraq hostile and prevaricating, intent on overwhelming weapons inspectors with “useless information about Iraq’s permitted weapons so that we would not have time to pursue Iraq’s prohibited weapons.”

The evidence cited by Powell was given a cast iron guarantee, though anyone listening would have gotten the impression that it risked sinking. “My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid evidence.” The sinking began early. Did Iraq, for instance, have a revived nuclear weapons program? “There is no doubt in my mind”.

During the display, a set of purposely engineered howlers found their way into the show. The evidence drawn from an intercepted conversation about UN inspections between Iraqi army officers was turned on its head, giving somewhat deceptive stuffing. The intercept, for instance never had such words as “Clean out all of the areas. … Make sure there is nothing there.” As Jon Schwarz helpfully reminds us in The Intercept, these are just a few pointers in what amounted to a grand game of Powellian deception.

Privately, the view from the self-advertised moderate was not so certain. “I wonder,” he pondered to his chief of staff Larry Wilkerson, “how we’ll all feel if we put half a million troops in Iraq and march from one end of the country to the other and find nothing.”

Trump’s defects in foreign policy are vast and extensive. His bullying, hectoring style to allies; his unorthodox and as-yet-to-be determined legality of using his office to solicit investigations from foreign leaders; his spontaneous, exit-driven obsession with existing treaties, all suggest a bleak record. Yet this is the president who brought North Korea, in drips and drabs, to the negotiating table, checked global US military interventions and farewelled the Trans Pacific Partnership, which is nothing more than a Corporations’ Charter of Rights over the commonweal. And this is the same president who has one refreshing vice: he lies in public, in open, all the time.

As for the general, Iraq was not his debacle but that of others. He has spent years cultivating his apologias, showing up his peers as imbeciles and he, a warning filled sage of reason. One of these efforts, from May 2012, can be found in Newsweek. “According to plans being confidently put forward, Iraq was expected to somehow transform itself into a stable country with democratic leaders 90 days after we took Baghdad. I believed such hopes were unrealistic. I was sure we would be in for a longer struggle.”

Powell’s Sunday barb fest is a reminder of how much form he has on this. Trump is but one in a cast of US political figures who have never matched the general’s own Olympian sense of worth, suggesting that Powell sports a vast chip on his shoulder. In September 2016, a leaked trove of his emails shows his spraying approach in terms of bile and critique. Trump, running as a presidential candidate, was naturally “a national disgrace and an international pariah”.

In a July 2014 email exchange with New York financier Jeffrey Leeds, Powell reserves a few nuggets of abuse for the Democrats. Hillary Clinton was replete with electoral liabilities, a “person with a long track record, unbridled ambition, greedy, not transformational, with a husband still dicking bimbos at home (according to the NYP).” But what irked Powell most of all was the effort by the Clintons to link his approach to information security and email usage to that of her own when she occupied his office. In August 20, he noted in an email how the Clinton campaign’s “email ploy this week didn’t work and she once again looks shifty if not a liar. Trump folks having fun with her.”

To James Carville, a steadfast friend of the Clintons, and one who had openly made the suggestion that both secretaries of state had used similar email practices (“Colin Powell said he has used his personal email address for work-related emails and said that he does not have any emails to turn over”), Powell fumed. “Dear James, you are the latest HRC acolyte trying to use me to cover her on the email caper. All these attempts and her dissembling have just made it Worse.”

Does of all this point to the grievances of history, failed hopes, and missed chances to reach the pinnacle of power in the US? Trump can, after all, always tell Powell how he slayed the GOP establishment and defeated his Democratic rival on his way to the White House. He effectively triumphed over two machines long encrusting the country’s politics. Powell’s sole role now is that of others on the cocktail and lecture circuit: the politics of resentment played on an expensive, endless loop.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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