Colin Powell
Colin Powell: An honorable man, his legacy will be stained by how Bush used him to justify the Iraq war Image Credit: Ador Bustamante/Gulf News

Few people knew Joseph C. Wilson before 2003. He was then the US ambassador to Gabon, just another career diplomat in an African capital that most Americans may have not heard of.

In the months leading to that year, the George W. Bush administration was building a case to invade Iraq on the premise that Saddam Hussein was developing an arsenal of mass destruction, including nuclear and biological weapons. A premise we now know was false.

Fate somehow put that unknown diplomat in the middle of that scandal. His wife, Valerie Plame, was a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent. Senior agency colleagues approached her husband on behalf of the White House and asked him to travel to neighbouring Niger, in which he served in the late 1970, and where they claimed that a delegation sent by Saddam few years earlier to purchase yellowcake uranium, necessary for building nuclear weapons.

Wilson spent weeks in Niger investigating the claim and told the administration upon his return that the information was not true. He couldn’t find any evidence that Iraq had tried to buy the material.

However, in his 2003 State of the Union address, few weeks after the US invaded Iraq, Bush in his justification of the war to Congress mentioned the alleged uranium purchase, which was already proven wrong by Wilson. The furious diplomat wrote an article, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa” that was published in The New York Times, in which he refuted the President’s claim.

Fair Game

A 2010 movie, “Fair Game”, based on both Wilson’s and his wife Plame’s memoirs, told how the White House retaliated against the couple for challenging the President. Both were fired from their jobs, and Plame’s became one of the few CIA’s secret agents whose real identity was actually disclosed by an official in the US administration.

Wilson’s boss, of course, was none other Colin Luther Powell, the former Secretary of State, former armed forces Chief of Staff and one of the most decorated soldiers in US military history who died on Monday of Covid-19 complications.

Born in New York City on April 5, 1937, to immigrant Jamaican parents, Powell made it all the way from a poor neighbourhood in the Bronx to the highest offices in the US government. He had a long and celebrated military career, which began with the war in Vietnam. Powell was sent there in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy among hundreds others as military advisers. He ended his military career on a high note as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shortly after leading the US first Gulf War in 1991 to defeat the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Well-established integrity

Between these two dates, he served in many important posts including as a national security aid to former President Ronald Reagan. In 2001, he was appointed by President George W. Bush as Secretary of State, the first African-American to serve in that position. The appointment was applauded by all, not because of Powell’s colour but because of his well-established integrity, his public service experience, and moderate views of international relations.

Well, that impeccable record didn’t survive Bush’s Iraq war more than his Gabon envoy Wilson did. However, while Wilson and his wife, the former CIA agent, left the service with their heads high up, Powell’s involvement in that war stained for the rest of his life an otherwise flawless record. The man, known of his integrity, simply lied to the world to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq!

Powell is known for his memorable quotes. He is one of the most quoted American statesmen. “Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision,” he says in one of his famous quotes. And that is exactly what he did in that famous speech to the United Nations Security Council on 5 February 2003.

In that special session, as Secretary of State, he presented Washington’s case to attack Iraq. His speech however was full of misleading facts. He very well knew the ‘adverse’ facts but decided anyway to ignore them because his boss, President Bush as well as Vice-President Dick Cheney and the neocon advisers, decided that the war was ‘a good decision’.

Powell began his speech at the UN with telling a sceptic audience that “there can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more. And he has the ability to dispense these lethal poisons and diseases in ways that can cause massive death and destruction.”

That may be true, but the fact is that the US didn’t have the evidence the administration claimed it has had. There was no evidence. It was made up. Nevertheless, Powell continued: “Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.” Powell surely knew that it was a lie. His aides sitting behind him knew it too and of course ambassador Wilson knew it.

Then came the dramatic climax of that 75-minute speech, which was being broadcast live around the world. A composed, assertive Powell, looked around the room like a magician assessing the right moment to awe his audience.

“Less than a teaspoon of dry anthrax, about this amount,” he declared as he held up a small vial of white powder, a fake poison, “shut down the United States Senate in the fall of 2001,” referring to incident in which a suspicious package was delivered to the Senate in an envelope. Powell alluded to Iraq’s involvement in that incident without providing evidence and added that Iraq had never accounted for 25,000 litres of anthrax that UN inspectors earlier said Baghdad had produced.

The stunt was most probably meant for the US public, which was until then sceptic about the administration’s war plans. And that is exactly why Bush decided to send his top diplomat to the UN.

A US-wide survey released a day before the UN session revealed that as far as the debate on Iraq is concerned, 63 per cent of Americans trusted Powell while only 24 per cent trusted Bush.

A man of integrity?

Thus, a man of integrity like Powell was certainly the White House’s best bet to sell the Iraq war. The ploy worked. Multiple polls released after that speech showed a huge shift in public opinion from opposing to supporting the war. Even the opposition, the Democrats in Congress, not only supported the war following Powell’s presentation but were calling for regime change in Baghdad.

Only one person knew the truth amid the ensuing war euphoria. He knew it was all made up. Powell. But he decided nevertheless to go along, although by then he realised that the image of him holding that vial at the UN would haunt him forever. Was he naive to accept that assignment or simply an accomplice?

We will perhaps never know. But we know that deep down, he went against another one of his famous quotes: “You can’t make someone else’s choices. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours.”

Not only did he allow Bush to make his choice to face the world to justify the war, but he also allowed his legacy to be defined by a white lie dictated by his boss. And that lie, that image of him holding the small vial of white powder, is what most will remember Powell by.