A Portrait in Cowardice

There are two kinds of courage. The first is a mindset, an approach to life and its challenges. We often hear of the courage of those who, day in and day out, have to fight to overcome illness or physical disabilities. We have courageous teachers who go to work every day knowing full well only a small fraction of their students will go on to academic success. But they persevere. Then there is that second variety, when a person is suddenly faced with a defining moment that tests their integrity and defines their lives- the soldier who gets out of the line of fire but goes back to retrieve a wounded comrade or the marchers who crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge and refused to yield in face of teargas and billy clubs. These people are models for the rest of us- particularly those who did what was right when the stakes where the highest- and they are the example from which national identities are built.

And then there are those, like Colin Powell, who face their defining moment and show themselves to be moral cowards. Powell, is actively trying to cover his shame with his current column in Newsweek written to pimp his new and dishonest apology, ironically and unblushingly titled It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership. But there is no fig leaf broad enough to cover a moral failing that literally cost hundreds of thousands of people their very lives. It is no overstatement to say that had Colin Powell been a person of courage and with integrity- an actual leader- the world would be a very, very different place today.

From the outset, Colin Powell knew that invading Iraq was a disastrous idea. Unlike Dick Cheney, who did everything he could to avoid actually serving in the armed forces, Powell had built a stellar career in the military. Powell was also quite aware that because of his stature with the American people, his appointment as Secretary of State was a political boon for George W. Bush who was widely perceived as a lightweight in general and in foreign policy in particular. Bush was a man who knew nothing of the world and had never traveled outside of the borders of his home country. Powell knew full well that his appointment gave the American people comfort. He was going to be an adult in the room.

In the wake of 9/11, however, the lunatics took over the Bush asylum. Not only did Ppwell make his notorious Iraq warning that “if you break it you own it,” he also famously referred to the neo-cons who had taken over the Bush Administration to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw as “fucking crazies.” Colin Powell knew what was happening around him and knew how disastrous it would be for everyone involved if the “fucking crazies” got their way. But what was equally clear at this crucial moment in our nation’s history is that Powell’s public stamp of approval for an invasion of Iraq was vital to Cheney and the rest of the Bush crowd. Without it, they literally could not have moved forward on their harebrained scheme to take over an Islamic country in the Middle East and then become an occupying power. Colin Powell not only knew better, but that he also knew that Dick Cheney and his cohorts were fabricating loads of utter bullshit to scoop out onto the American people. He was never fooled or convinced by the ridiculous, supposed Iraqi source, ironically known as “Curveball.” Powell had refused much of what Cheney’s henchman in chief, Scooter Libby, had tried to put in his disgraceful UN Speech. But, instead of standing tall and telling what he knew to be the truth- or at least not telling what doubted was real- Powell went along to get along and shamed himself. Colin Powell was, at that very moment, the last guardian of our nation’s health and instead of standing up for the country he claimed to love, he got stared down and sheepishly stepped out of the way and let the Crazy Train pass.

But, as disgraceful as his UN speech was, Powell’s ultimate test of character was still ahead of him, and it came in a White House hallway when George W. Bush told him it was going to be war and asked “Are you with me?” From the very beginning of the 2000 presidential campaign, Powell had questioned whether Bush could “fill a suit,” and here was his moment to call that empty suit out. Had Powell looked Bush back in the eye and said, “No, sir, I am not and if you follow this course of action I will resign my position,” Bush would almost certainly not have been able to go forward. A dissenting Powell- the one actually military man in the whole administration- who was willing to walk away rather than be party to this disaster would have set warning fireworks across the national sky. All of Cheney and Libby’s bogus “WMD” claims would have suddenly received much more scrutiny and skepticism. There would not have been a war in Iraq.

What makes Powell’s recent media forays so egregious is his dishonesty and, like the boss he once served, his inability to admit his lapse of character- and act that would require real courage. In his Newsweek column he appears to think we’ve all just forgotten about what really happened. He claims to have believed all the incredulous evidence he was given- despite being on record as actively questioning it. And, of course, even if what he now says were true, a real leader would have at the very least, the very least, demanded to see real proof and a serious case made for so drastic an action as sending tens of thousands of American servicemen and women into harm’s way. But he didn’t do any of that.

A book on “leadership” from someone who soiled himself in his moment of greatest calling should be regarded like a book on relationship advice by Bill Clinton. Powell should be up nights writhing in remorse for all the needless death and destruction that he could have steered us away from. But instead he now shamelessly works the paid speech circuit full time to try to publically paper over his chasm of his moral failure and to scrub the blood from his hands. And again like his former boss, he’s given a pass by his countrymen because the reality of his and the rest of the Bush Administration’s actions are just too tragic and costly to face squarely. And so we continue instead to pretend that our brave troops have been “defending our freedom” when the truth is our troops have been fighting for each other, just hoping the survive the burning furnace of Hell that Powell and company needlessly and carelessly hurled them into.

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