In the game of historical “what ifs,” it’s worth imagining what might have been if Colin Powell — who in the early 1990s was among the most admired figures in America — had heeded conservative pleas to seek the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, won it, and then defeated Bill Clinton that November.
Our first Black president would have been a Republican.
He would also have been the first president since Andrew Jackson to be a child of immigrants — living proof that a country that opens its doors to impoverished strangers is immeasurably enriched by their aspirations and efforts.
The Monica Lewinsky scandal, which so embittered, disgusted and polarized the country, would (at most) have been a disturbing story about an ex-president.
The Gingrich Republicans, forerunners to the truculent populists who would elect Donald Trump 20 years later, could have been held in check by a president whose moderate instincts, military bearing and public standing recalled Dwight Eisenhower.
The bitter contest over the election of 2000 — its outcome determined by the Supreme Court — would almost certainly not have happened. The country might have entered the 21st century with more sobriety and less division.
The fight against Islamist extremism that would have confronted Powell in a likely second term would have played out very differently abroad and at home.
But Powell chose not to run. The character traits that had made him an exemplary military leader and presidential adviser were ill-suited for a bruising campaign. He had no particular ideology beyond being a problem-solver with somewhat conservative instincts. He lacked the messianic self-belief that animates most candidates. He saw himself as a soldier-statesman in the mold of George Marshall, not as a politician who lived by the polls and had an elastic relationship with truth.
No wonder Powell seized the chance to be George W. Bush’s secretary of state. Here was an opportunity to tutor a foreign-policy novice at a moment of seemingly unique promise for the United States. It turned out to be anything but, both with respect to the opportunity and the promise.
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, shattered a decade’s worth of American complacency about its place atop the global order at the supposed end of history. The administration’s response to the attacks shattered whatever hopes Powell might have had to be the dominant figure in the Bush administration.
Powell is sometimes remembered as the man who could have stopped the invasion of Iraq but lacked the spine or the political infighting skills to do so. This is unfair and historically inaccurate.
Easily forgotten now, the idea that Saddam Hussein posed a unique threat to global security was widely shared at the time of invasion, including by Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer and Adam Schiff, to name a few. The weapons of mass destruction dossier that Powell presented to the UN Security Council on the eve of the Iraq War had the full confidence of the intelligence community.
As it is, Powell did have a long private conversation with Bush, outlining the real challenge of invasion: A broken post-war Iraq would be America’s to pay for and fix. That was the right advice, and it called for meticulous planning for the day after Saddam’s downfall.
Instead, Bush assigned the task of reconstruction to Donald Rumsfeld, who shrugged at post-war looting in Baghdad as little more than exuberant expressions of freedom. More destructive was the cocksure U.S. viceroy in Iraq, Paul Bremer, who reported to Rumsfeld and who helped lay the ground for the insurgency by disbanding the Iraqi army (Bremer has his own version of events). Powell, who said he was never consulted on the decision, hardly deserves the blame.
Yet Powell’s performance as secretary also reflected the virtues and limitations of the system that had embraced him and that he came to embody for both better and worse.
Powell came of age at a time when American systems worked. His parents arrived in the United States from Jamaica through open doors. He received, by his own account, a remarkably good public school education. The Army, integrated for only about a decade when he joined it, saw his promise and promoted him swiftly.
He oversaw the American war machine when it was at the zenith of its power, decimating the supposedly formidable Iraqi military with shock-and-awe-inducing swiftness in the Persian Gulf war. The adulation with which the U.S. public received him seemed to announce the long-awaited post-racial future.
In this sense, Powell uniquely synthesized two strains of American identity that had long been at odds: the radical promise of 1776 that all of us, irrespective of background, are indeed created equal and can rise as far as our talents will take us, and the sturdy traditionalism that goes with being the product of a military hierarchy.
But things went badly wrong with America’s systems between the time they had shaped Powell on his way up and the time he had a hand in shaping them from the top. Immigration processes became incoherent. Public education deteriorated. Social mobility stagnated.
Within the federal government, the intelligence community had become catastrophically inept. In Iraq, the United States could not get the lights to go on. In Afghanistan, it could not competently disburse foreign aid. At least until David Petraeus took charge, the military seemed hapless in the face of the rising insurgency.
At almost every level of authority, bureaucracy got in the way of initiative, process in the way of speed, consensus in the way of independent thinking.
Powell, like so many others, could not seem to get his head around the extent of the rot. He had spent days at the CIA vetting the intelligence on Iraq before presenting it at the UN. Even then it was garbage. A responsible case could have been made for Hussein’s removal because he was a one-man weapon of mass destruction, responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths irrespective of what lay in his arsenal.
But the WMD case was pressed because it seemed to be the most convenient. The decision to disband the Iraqi army was made with no interagency process to speak of. The person who defended that fiasco, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, was chosen to succeed Powell at the State Department.
Again, Powell was not responsible for this. But the same combination of decency, levelheadedness and ambivalence that dissuaded him from running for president prevented him from being the kind of critic and reformer that a broken system really needed.
“A modest man who has much to be modest about” was Winston Churchill’s reputed jibe about his successor Clement Attlee. Powell, by contrast, was a modest man who, for all of his achievements, was still too modest for his country’s good.
General Powell, you should’ve run in ’96. Rest in peace.
Bret Stephens is a New York Times columnist.