Colin Powell lied to millions to justify the crime

Colin Powell, one of the chief architects of the US invasion of Iraq, which hundreds of thousands of people had to pay with their lives, has died. The most terrible thing in his history is that he was widely regarded as a reasonable, respectable man.

There was no shortage of overt monsters among the officials in the administration of President George W. Bush responsible for starting the war with Iraq. They were able to force a bloody policy, but they would rather not win political positions in democratic elections, because decent people who listen to their speeches simply cower in terror.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wanted to go to war with Iraq, even though there was no good reason to do so. However, as he then put it, Iraq had “many good goals” that Afghanistan did not have.

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Rumsfeld’s deputy, also a neoconservative, Paul Wolfowitz, argued in a similar vein. The invasion of Iraq was “doable” in his opinion, and America did not need to look at “allies, coalitions and diplomacy.”

Vice President Dick Cheney was literally the mastermind behind the global torture machine – few psychopaths can boast such an achievement. In 2006, Cheney shot a hunting buddy in the face, permanently mutilating him. As far as we know, he has not apologized to him to this day. [Za to trafiony śrutem republikański prawnik Harry Whittington przeprosił Dicka Cheneya i jego rodzinę za nieprzyjemności, jakie ich w związku z tym wypadkiem spotkały – przyp. red.].

A war criminal has died

The ghoulish figures in this ranks were quite commonplace; exude an aura around them that we now call “toxic masculinity.” It was different with Colin Powell, the Secretary of State in the Bush Cabinet, who died at the age of 84 from complications caused by COVID-19 infection. Powell looked quite different: as the epitome of quiet dignity, prudence, and peace. He was, however, a war criminal responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Whatever bad we say about Rumsfeld, Cheney or Wolfowitz today also applies to Colin Powell.

September 11 and the politics of unity: a victory for the authoritarian right

Powell served in the military for 35 years. With Ronald Reagan, he became security adviser, George Bush Sr. appointed him chairman of the Joint Staff College, and Bush Jr. made him secretary of state. His popularity is proved by the fact that for decades both American parties tried to convince him to become their presidential candidate. Powell was also valued by the liberals, for although he served in the Republican administrations, he welcomed the Barack Obama presidency as “groundbreaking” and opposed Donald Trump, rightly seeing him as a dangerous racist.

It is all true. But most of all, Powell led a war he knew was wrong and sealed with his immense authority. Responsible for the deaths of about half a million people.

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After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Colin Powell in private talks opposed the invasion of Iraq. He warned that such a war would destabilize the entire region and distract America from fighting al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The warmongers at the Junior Bush White House kept Powell out of their circle. It happened that they did not invite him to their meetings, knowing that the secretary of state did not sincerely believe in this war.

The voice of authority

That is why Bush asked Powell to present the arguments for overthrowing Saddam Hussein at the UN forum. On February 5, 2003, Powell gave a 76-minute speech to the Security Council in which he argued that Hussein threatened the entire world, and that the only way out of this threat was through military invasion. Powell looked uncomfortable many times during this speech. In a television interview, he later told journalist Barbara Walters that speaking at the United Nations was a “painful” experience for him. Still later, in 2011, he admitted that the Iraq war would be “a stain on his honor.”

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He was right. Because it was his, Colin Powell, appearance at the United Nations that convinced many Americans – probably millions of them – that the war with Iraq was a just war. He supported the war with his own authority. It was after this speech that many Washington commentators, unsure as to whether to support the invasion, surrendered. Several studies since then have shown that 10 percent. The Americans then changed their minds: they were against the war, but supported it when they listened to Powell. This effect was most pronounced among the supporters of the Democratic Party. After Powell’s speech by 30 percent. the number of people who believed that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda jumped, though no such connection, of course, was there.

A year later, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan declared the war in Iraq illegal. The United Nations Charter allows military aggression only when it is undertaken in self-defense or when it is sanctioned by the UN Security Council. Many international law scholars agreed with Annan. This makes Bush and his gang of war criminals – not figuratively but quite literally. Special attention of the tribunal in The Hague, however, deserved Powell, because it was he who personally persuaded the public to support this crime.

In Iraq, no one will mourn Colin Powell. Many still mourn the relatives, friends and neighbors who have been killed by Powell’s words. “He just lied, lied and lied,” the Iraqi writer, mother of two, told the Associated Press the day he died. “He lied, and we are now stuck in a war that has no end.” Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi, famous for throwing a shoe at President Bush at a 2008 press conference, regretted on Twitter that Powell had died before being tried for his crime against the Iraqi people.

He will not be punished

Powell’s speech at the United Nations and its overwhelming impact on public opinion are symbolic for those times. Powell seemed straight out of the Presidential poker – a TV series from the time of Bill Clinton, loved by many liberals, and invented by Aaron Sorkin, who portrayed the ethical dilemmas of America’s rulers with boundless empathy. Powell’s words were soothing: there are good people working in the White House who give their best, and when they do what you find monstrous, it’s because they couldn’t have done anything else. Powell’s truly Hamlet torments spread the same aura over the entire Bush administration, one of the worst in American history.

War on terror and a power that creates its own reality

In this sense, Colin Powell can be judged harsher even than Donald Rumsfeld. It was his words that made the most criminal and unforgivable decisions of the elite seem reasonable and inevitable, because they were made after a long and sober reflection. It was his words that made it possible to justify the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. Millions of people trusted him, and he lied to them all. It’s hard to disagree with the Iraqi journalist al-Zaidi: the only sadness about Colin Powell’s departure is that he will not be punished.

Liza Featherstone is a columnist for Jacobin magazine, journalist and author of a book Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart.

Article published in Jacobin magazine. Marek Jedliński translated from English.