Culminating in his endorsement of Barack Obama in early 2008, the climax of the general’s campaign of personal salvation via his repudiation of many aspects of the Iraq War, Colin Powell’s media redemption tour began in late 2006.
When the Bush administration began contemplating ways in which they could shift the momentum in Iraq back toward coalition forces and ultimately settled on the policy which would become known as the “surge,” Powell preemptively condemned Bush’s approach to the Iraq War and endorsed a policy of disengagement.
Speaking to the late Tim Russert on NBC’s Meet the Press in 2007, Powell scolded Bush for ignoring his commanders who had recommended that the U.S. pull back and allow Iraqi forces to engage insurgents fighting what he considered a sectarian “civil war.” He said that “al-Qaeda is relatively small percentage of this overall problem” in Iraq, that the war was one he would have “preferred to avoid,” and that he believed that he misled the world when he addressed the U.N. General Assembly on the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
“All we would be doing is keeping some of the troops who were there, there longer and escalating or accelerating the arrival of other troops,” Powell told CBS News in December, 2006. “That’s how you surge. And that surge cannot be sustained.”
Powell was wrong. The “surge” in Iraq, accompanied with a diplomatic offensive which led to the “Anbar Awakening, was so effective that it provided the political space that enabled Barack Obama to fully withdraw American troops from a relatively stable Iraq in late 2010.
The former secretary of state’s insistence that American disengagement was the only course that would lead to stability in Iraq was not the only thing he got wrong about the region. Speaking to The Atlantic in April, 2007, Powell dismissed the notion that a threat comparable to fascism or communism would ever arise in the Middle East.
Asked if the U.S. was engaged in a generational, Cold War-like struggle in the Middle East, Powell said America was not and would never be:
I have a slightly different view. 9/11 was a huge traumatic shock to us. And it changed everything before and after 9/11. But in all the speeches I give around the country, I try to make the point that the Cold War’s gone, China’s selling to Wal-Mart, all it wants to do is sell, and it’s not going to be an enemy. I’m sorry, my best friends want it to be an enemy, but it won’t cooperate. Why would they want to be an enemy? Look how well they’re doing. A trillion dollars in U.S. dollar reserves. [Treasury Secretary] Hank Paulson’s over there begging. So why are they going to be an enemy?
Listen, all the theologies and ideologies that were going to supplant ours are gone. I mean, they’re all gone The communists, the fascists—get serious! The few authoritarian regimes that are left around are peanuts. Like Belarus, Turkmenistan, Venezuela. Castro. Give me something to get serious about. Then you have terrorism. One, it’s non-state. Two, most of them have to hide and stay in hiding. We are now better on the offense against them. We’re better on the defense against them. We haven’t had an incident in five years—knock wood. But the point I make to all of my audiences is that it will happen again at some point, and maybe we’ll lose another facility. Maybe we’ll lose some of our fellow citizens. But what they can’t do, what they never can do, is change who we are. They can’t change our form of government. They can’t change we, who we are. Only we can do that.
We can’t let terrorism suddenly become the substitute for Red China and the Soviet Union as our all encompassing enemy, this great Muslim extremist monolithic thing from somewhere in Mauritania all the way through Muslim India. They’re all different. It’s not going come together like that.
Today, a proto-state founded on the tenets of fundamentalist Islamic radicalism has arisen in Syria and Iraq. It threatens to expand its reach into the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, and in North Africa. China and Russia, meanwhile, have adopted behavior patterns quite unlike what is expected of a 21st Century actor by threatening or engaging in armed aggression against neighboring states with the goal of territorial expansionism.
Powell was as wrong in 2007 as he was in 2003, but the press embraced him and elevated him to near heroic status because he was saying what they wanted to hear. The media now had a denunciation of George W. Bush’s strategic approach to the Iraq War from a source with unassailable moral authority.
Today, Barack Obama faces a similar insurrection from those who once stood beside him in his administration. Accomplished figures like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former CIA Director and Defense Sec. Leon Panetta are now issuing similar condemnations of the president for failing to heed the concerns of his generals and advisors. Because we were ignored, they say, look at the disaster we are now facing in the Middle East.
Surely, there is an element of CYA in Panetta and Clinton’s condemnations of the president’s handling of Iraq and Syria, but that same condition prompted Powell to seek absolution in the press. Will those former Obama allies find the media is as sympathetic to them as they were toward Powell? That is unlikely.
Today, the press is skeptical of America’s military commanders who fret over Obama ignoring their recommendation to send U.S. troops back to Iraq. In 2007, the press scolded the president for ignoring his commanders when he decided to introduce more combat troops into Iraq. The situation changes but the media’s objective remains the same: advance the often dovish policy proposal favored by the Democratic establishment.
Panetta and Clinton may be on the right side of history, but they are on the wrong side of the press. The judgment of posterity always wins over the expedient narrative of the moment, but they will find that their ultimate vindication cold comfort as they are abandoned by their erstwhile allies in the media.