With the recent passing of former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, it is important to take a trip down memory lane.
For the most part, the age of Colin Powell was America at its strongest and most decisive. Powell, who became the highest-ranking African-American general of his generation and held the highest Cabinet position ever granted to an African-American at the time, was part of an America on the rise.
In 1983, he served as a senior military aide to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, but he was very different from his boss. While Weinberger is largely responsible for Jonathan Pollard’s fate, Powell led the successful invasion of Grenada. He also helped navigate the airstrikes in 1986 against Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi in retaliation for the terrorist bombing of a discotheque frequented by American soldiers stationed in West Berlin.
In 1989, as then-President George H.W. Bush’s national security advisor, he led the invasion of Panama and capture of its authoritarian ruler, Manuel Antonio Noriega, who had amassed a personal fortune through drug trafficking.
Bush later appointed him chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In this role, he had to deal with the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein. Although reluctant to go to war—believing in the use of overwhelming force to maximize results and minimize casualties—he led the first Gulf War in 1991, using the philosophy that would come to be known as the “Powell Doctrine.”
The Powell Doctrine led to victory by the United States in the first Gulf War and the total defeat of Saddam Hussein in the second Gulf War. Why America did not go all the way in the former is a matter of some controversy.
Most argue that Saddam was left in power to counterbalance the mullahs in Iran, and part of Powell’s reluctance to go to war in the first place had to do with the regime in Tehran. Though the second war was a success, Bush didn’t get re-elected in 1992.
I was in Israel during the first Gulf War and remember well the 39 Scud missiles that Saddam fired at the Jewish state. In the early days of the war, I remember the fright and terror that the threat of Scuds tipped with chemical warheads posed. He had used chemical weapons against the Kurds. I believed anything to stop that madman was warranted.
Powell had a good relationship with the State of Israel. In a speech he made to the World Jewish Congress in 2017, he recalled the “joy throughout” his Bronx, N.Y., neighborhood after Israel declared Independence in 1948. He said, “Tears flowed, celebrations everywhere; it wasn’t just the Jews who were celebrating; the rest of us were celebrating for the Jews. We all shared in their joy of having a homeland.”
Powell was a calm and humble soul. He might have become the first African-American president had he chosen to run as a Republican in 1996. But he didn’t enter the race. He did, however, speak at the Republican National Convention in 1996 and again in 2000. In 2000, he was appointed secretary of state by President George W. Bush.
In 2001, he had to deal with the challenges posed by the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Again, he opposed a war with Iraq, but as secretary of state, he was tasked with making the case at the United Nations to do so, using the argument that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. I believe he could have made the case regardless of WMD.
In 2004, Powell resigned as secretary of state. Most believe his resignation was a direct result of getting faulty information about Saddam’s WMD. Despite America’s going to war against Iraq and the hullabaloo about poor intelligence regarding the WMD, Bush was re-elected.
New York Times columnist Bret Stephens recently wrote, “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 most convenient.”
Stephens hits it on the nose. Saddam had wreaked enough havoc in the world. His time was up. Yes, the Iranians gained the most from his removal. They should not, however, get too comfortable.
I am not sure what Powell would do today vis à vis the Iranian nuclear threat, but I believe the Israelis at least are finally realizing there is only one option left and it is not another foolhardy deal.
Powell will be remembered as a remarkable general and statesman. We need more like him.
Dr. Joseph Frager is first vice president of the National Council of Young Israel.