Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell
A few quotes from the review: The portrait of the Bush White House that emerges from this volume ratifies those drawn in many other recent books: it is an administration in which traditional policy-making channels are subverted, expert advice is frequently ignored, and substantive debate and discussion are avoided. “The president tended to pay most attention to the last person to whisper in his ear, Powell thought, and that person was usually Cheney.” Click through to read the entire review.
From the October 10, 2006, New York Times
Books of The Times
Tracing Colin Powell’s Journey, Both in and Out of Step With Those Around Him
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell
By Karen DeYoung
As the war in Iraq drags on, and more and more is learned about the missteps and misrepresentations made in the walkup to the war, it becomes clear that former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell — who harbored serious doubts about the wisdom of invasion and who frequently found himself an outsider in an administration dominated by neo-conservative hawks — was prescient about a host of issues, from the difficulties of rebuilding a postwar Iraq to the need for higher troop levels and multilateral support.
Even as his foresight is underscored, journalists and former colleagues have continued to ask: Why didn’t Mr. Powell resign when he realized that much of his advice was being ignored? Why didn’t he more forcefully express his reservations about the war to President Bush? Why did he put up with being cut out of major foreign policy decisions by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld? Why was he unable to make the president and the Pentagon heed the tenets of the “Powell Doctrine” (which held that military commitments must be made with decisive force, a clear objective and popular support, to avoid another Vietnam)?
As Karen DeYoung, an associate editor of The Washington Post, notes in her new biography, various theories have been advanced to explain Mr. Powell’s decision to quietly stick out his first-term tenure as secretary of state. She writes that some of his closest overseas counterparts speculated “that his military background made him unwilling to question orders or that any black man who reached the top in America must have done so by toeing the line.”
She observes that some Foreign Service officers believed that he stayed put because he was “the only thing standing between a sustainable foreign policy and utter national disaster,” and that in the words of one assistant secretary, he prevented “much worse stuff from happening.”
And, finally, she suggests that Mr. Powell let the administration use his prestige and popularity “even as it repeatedly undermined him and disregarded his advice,” at least in part because he “simply refused to acknowledge the extent of the losses he had suffered”: “Beyond his soldier’s sense of duty, he saw even the threat of resignation as an acknowledgment of defeat. He was a proud man, and he would never have let them see him sweat.”
Much of “Soldier” retraces familiar ground. The first half of the book — which focuses on Mr. Powell’s early life, his distinguished Army career and his role in the first gulf war under the first President Bush — draws heavily on the general’s own memoirs, published in 1995. The second half, devoted to his tenure as the second President Bush’s secretary of state, reiterates a lot of information in earlier books by reporters like Bob Woodward, Seymour M. Hersh and Ron Suskind, while echoing observations made more vociferously by Mr. Powell’s former chief of staff Lawrence B. Wilkerson, who in the last year has become an increasingly outspoken critic of the administration.
Mr. Powell gave Ms. DeYoung six lengthy, on-the-record interviews (five in 2003-4, when he was secretary of state, and one in 2005 after leaving office), and this book’s chief usefulness is in fleshing out the narrative of the administration’s road to war from the general’s perspective — much the way Mr. Suskind’s book “The Price of Loyalty” fleshed out a portrait of the administration from the point of view of Paul O’Neill, the former treasury secretary. Sometimes Ms. DeYoung is content to play the role of Mr. Powell’s sock puppet, channeling his views of the Bush administration. Sometimes she steps back to offer her own assessments of the general’s decisions.
As depicted in “Soldier,” Colin Powell comes across as an able public servant blessed with enormous experience, common sense and political skills, but also hampered as secretary of state by an underestimation of his hawkish colleagues’ determination to go to war and an overconfidence in his own ability to influence President Bush. Both before and after 9/11, he was the odd man out: a careful tactician in an administration driven by visionary zeal; a moderate and multilateralist in an administration inclined toward unilateral and pre-emptive action.
Caution seems to be a hallmark of both his personality and his style: Ms. DeYoung tells us that as a junior officer, Mr. Powell had his grade on an exam nicked for not coming up with a bolder response to a hypothetical war-fighting question, and later carried with him a three-by-five card that read, “Avoid Conservatism.” Caution would inform his reluctance to rush to war against Iraq, but it also appears to have informed his dealings with President Bush and administration hawks.
“Powell thought that Bush had a bad habit of driving headlong down blind alleys or going along for the ride when policy was being driven by Cheney, often with Rumsfeld in the jump seat,” Ms. DeYoung writes. “But at least the president was usually willing to apply the brakes before crashing into a wall, and he seemed to understand that his secretary of state was there to steer him back toward a reasonable course.”
At least that is how Mr. Powell saw it, she suggests, “in a series of first-year crises — the initial hard lines on China and on troop withdrawal from Bosnia, the refusal to talk to North Korea and the move toward peremptory withdrawal from the ABM treaty.”
Yet at the same time, she observes, “Powell was slow to grasp the extent of his — and the State Department’s — isolation within Bush’s national security team,” adding that, in the wake of 9/11, with hawks pushing the case for war, he remained “certain there was still plenty of time to get Iraq right.”
The portrait of the Bush White House that emerges from this volume ratifies those drawn in many other recent books: it is an administration in which traditional policy-making channels are subverted, expert advice is frequently ignored, and substantive debate and discussion are avoided.
Like many earlier books by reporters and former administration insiders, this volume suggests that the National Security Council — which is supposed to mediate differences among the State Department, the Pentagon and other administration officials — was highly dysfunctional: as national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice at times seemed “willfully blind to the damage being done by these intramural disputes.” More dangerously, in Mr. Powell’s view, “she tended to echo back to the president what she thought he wanted to hear rather than what he needed to know.”
During the winter of 2002-3, Ms. DeYoung notes, the National Security Council “met regularly to review the status of both military planning and the diplomatic effort,” but “the principals had never discussed the pros and cons of the war itself.” There was never a moment, Mr. Powell said, when they all made their recommendations, and Mr. Bush made a decision.
As Mr. Powell saw it, writes Ms. DeYoung, the “main impediment to a more orderly, disciplined process in the Bush administration” was Vice President Cheney, who had his own shadow National Security Council staff and who spent a good part of every day in Mr. Bush’s presence: “The president tended to pay most attention to the last person to whisper in his ear, Powell thought, and that person was usually Cheney.”
The growing antipathy between Mr. Powell and the State Department on one side, and Mr. Cheney, Mr. Rumsfeld and their senior staffs on the other, Ms. DeYoung says, extended far beyond specific policy disagreements: “It was institutional, ideological and even personal.” She adds: “Powell was put off by Cheney’s dour certitude,” while “Cheney thought that anyone as smooth and popular as Powell was inherently untrustworthy.”
As recounted by Ms. DeYoung, one of the great paradoxes — and tragedies — of Mr. Powell’s story is that his experiences in Vietnam, combined with his experiences in the Reagan administration where he witnessed the fallout of Iran-Contra, left him with the deeply held belief that “presidential policy decisions made without a full and honest airing of options and potential pitfalls among a range of senior advisers usually resulted in disaster.”
In his role as secretary of state in the administration of George W. Bush, Mr. Powell was unable to impress upon the president and the rest of his war cabinet the wisdom of this lesson, as they hurried America to war against Iraq and as he, the good soldier, reluctantly went along.