It can be said now. Strong men – and women – do not always succeed. Sometimes they fail. It is what they do with failure that makes all the difference. Those of character learn – and teach. Consider Colin Powell in 2003.
In February 2003, George W. Bush’s Secretary of State spoke to the United Nations, presenting intelligence on Iraq, validating war. Despite intense pre-speech scrutiny, data proved wrong.
Yes, there were chemical weapons in Iraq, as the New York Times verified in 2014, but details are material. The case in February 2003 suggested post-1991 chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons activity. Chemical canisters discovered were pre-1991, little to do with the case made.
Some will say this is a distinction without a difference, including neo-conservatives – who are not conservative but interventionist. George Washington, Ronald Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush, and Colin Powell were neither neo-conservative nor interventionist.
Those who see no difference miss the point. An outcome accidentally right does not vindicate faulty premises. Just as evidence in court must match the judgment sought, averred facts matter. The moral argument for war on mistaken facts is not suddenly made right on later facts. Old weapons might seem to justify war, but not the war’s improvident start.
All of this is to say, Colin Powell worked to find the truth, but intelligence from Saddam’s Iraq was limited. If Powell was cautious, others eager. Iraq wanted adversaries to think it had what it did not, refused UN compliance. After 9-11, American bristles were up and nerves raw.
With no sympathy for interventionists, Powell had to present what he had, rely on what was available and do his job as Secretary of State. So, he did that.
Internally, he cautioned the President, Vice President, Secretary of Defense, and never-in-uniform National Security Advisor. Wars are ugly, diplomacy superior, worth the time.
Six weeks after Powell gave the speech, no movement from Iraq, President Bush launched a “preemptive” war, presumably to nip WMD. Congress authorized that war a year prior.
Almost at once, the war was beset by misjudgments. This was not the liberation of Eastern Europe. Iraq was a pit of sectarian divisions, pre-loaded for civil war. Why did Bush not see that?
And why did veterans Colin Powell and Deputy Rich Armitage, favoring diplomacy, not resign? After all, they saw the rising geopolitical misstep, had pressed caution, and their attempts failed. Now they were part of this stumbling, errant, war-waging team. Why not resign?
Would that have made anything better? Should Powell and Armitage have departed mid-war, resigned like Carter’s Secretary of State, Cy Vance, who left after a failed hostage rescue in Iran?
I think history will say no. Here is why. If you sat at that table – our nation gripped by two wars – knowing you and your deputy were the only ones with combat experience, would you leave?
Put differently, if you knew about war, felt responsible for not stopping it, possessed a moral compass, lived through Vietnam, knew how wars can spiral, would you have left then?
Powell and Armitage might have made a statement, as Vance did. But neither Powell nor Armitage were that kind of person, not quitters, not with lives in the balance, leadership thin.
When Harry Truman countermanded Secretary of State George C. Marshall, Marshall might have quit. But he knew duty meant staying. Theodore Roosevelt once faced similar decisions.
In 1910, TR explained: “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly,” even if he comes up short.
Powell admired Marshall, loved the country. He lived TR’s words, strived valiantly, and learned from his errors. Resigning would have been wrong – when the critical experience was needed.
Strong men – and women – do not always succeed. Sometimes they fail. But it is what they do with failure that makes the difference. Powell did not resign in 2003 because duty said: “stay.” History will record that decision was hard – but also right.