General Powell’s Endorsement

 Many conservatives wonder why retired Army Gen. Colin Powell endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. The quick answer-and the most inadequate one-is that Powell is obliged to endorse the first African-American with a real chance to win the presidency. That answer lacks substance. At any point after retiring from military service, the Republican nomination for president was Colin Powell’s if he wanted it.Additionally, Powell’s endorsement of John McCain would seem a slam dunk since both were career officers who served in Vietnam. Senator Obama, with no military experience, accused U.S. forces of bombing villages and killing innocent people. Furthermore, Obama’s long association with Weather Underground founder, terrorist-turned-professor William Ayers, bespeaks the poorest of judgment.

The reasons behind Powell’s endorsement are complex. True, Obama and Powell share the same ethnicity. Although his actions were muted by military regulations governing political activities, Powell achieved the goals of the Civil Rights struggle: a man judged by the “content of his character rather than the color of his skin.” Powell’s extraordinary leadership capabilities, not race, propelled his Army career.

As Secretary of State, Powell fit the George C. Marshall mold. Both generals proved able coalition builders by working across rigid service lines and international barriers to achieve their goals.

In most administrations, the positions of Secretary of Defense and State constitute the two most important cabinet appointments. In Bush’s first cabinet, the moderately conservative Powell at Foggy Bottom balanced the ultra-conservative Donald Rumsfeld across the Potomac. With the wartime situation extant after 9/11, it would seem a “dream team” was in place. Things were not as they seemed.

In Beltway politics, the struggle between State and Defense resembles that between ancient Sparta and Athens. The two institutions are vastly different. Department of State operates on less than 10 percent of DoD’s budget. Additionally, the two cultures are diametrically opposed. They use language differently. Soldiers, demanding clarity, speak bluntly and pointedly. Military decisions presage potentially deadly actions that must be carried out quickly, efficiently, effectively, and decisively. Diplomats, on the other hand, work for compromise and conciliation. Their language is subtle, refined, and often purposefully nuanced.

Donald Rumsfeld sought to be the kind of Pentagon reformer Robert S. McNamara tried to be. His vision for reform revolved around turning the American military into an ultra-high tech power projection force capable of meeting the perceived (if somewhat contrived) “Chinese threat” circa 2025. Stealthy long-range bombers, submarine and surface forces capable of commanding the seas, coupled with space-based assets comprised the essence of this vision. Soldiers, and to a lesser extent, Marines, were an afterthought. Rumsfeld’s vision would not abide fighting insurgencies in the Third World. It was better suited to quick take-downs of second-class military forces like the Iraqi Army. Terrorism and insurgencies are not amenable to the kind of military forces envisioned by Donald Rumsfeld; nor did they fit his into his neo-conservative worldview.

President Bush made two critical strategic mistakes clearly apparent to any strategist, especially one as capable as Colin Powell: First, he failed to properly define the war, dubbing it a “War on Terror” when by Tuesday night September 11, 2001 it was clear al Qaeda, a group supported by Islamist radicals globally, had attacked the United States. Second, Bush intended to take out Saddam Hussein all along. His first inclination after 9/11 was to march on Baghdad.

The Vietnam experience figured heavily into the thinking of officers who achieved flag rank in the 1990s. Months before Operation Iraqi Freedom, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki, a Vietnam combat vet, warned Congress that invading Iraq risked a long war of attrition. Rumsfeld rewarded Shinseki’s candor with early retirement. General Wesley Clark and retired Marine General Anthony Zinni also warned against going into Iraq.

Bush used the weapons of mass destruction argument to obtain support from the Congress and Americans and exaggerated the threat to get what he wanted all along: an end to Saddam’s bloody regime. Having based the war on an erroneous assumption, the Bush administration inherited its legacy: an end to the Republican control of Congress and quite possibly loss of the White House.

Bush hung with Rumsfeld until it became apparent American ground forces faced a possible meltdown due to overuse and misuse. Bush then turned to his constituency at Texas A&M University, home of the George H. W. Bush School, naming Robert Gates, president of Texas A&M, to replace Rumsfeld.

Ultimately, the way politicians and generals mishandled the Vietnam fiasco probably figured far more heavily in Colin Powell’s endorsement equations than anything a raggedy, aging terrorist-turned professor did 40 years ago. Army Vietnam veterans, officers like Colin Powell-Norman Schwarzkopf, Wesley Clark and Eric Shinseki-worked to restore and rebuild the Army prior to Desert Storm. Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama issues from a lifetime of service and insights much more reflective of Army green than any shade of skin color.

Dr. Earl Tilford


Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.

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  • elkabrikir

    You stated that the reasons for his endorsement are complex.

    However, by endorsing Obama, he rejected McCain. Why? What did McCain do or not do to warrant rejection? McCain indeed has all the pros you enumerated and Obama the negatives. What general in his right mind would support a civilian with such little experience as a leader?

    I firmly believe the endorsement is for three reasons:

    Supreme Court appointments: abortion issues.
    Payback: bitterness at being the dupe for Bush
    Race: In another article on CE I posted the links quoting Powell that his people got here “in chains….they didn’t just fall from the sky”.

    Others have said Powell is getting something. Time will tell.

    He’s irrelevant anyway to this election. Nobody cares about military heroism or leadership experience or else McCain would be faring better. Further the Doves will never trust him, so he doesn’t win them for Obama. Blacks already are in lock step with Dems, so are gays, lesbians, pro aborts, and Hollywood. Who did he gain for Obama? Maybe a few “undecideds” who were in Obama’s pocket, too, only were too cagey or desperate for attention to admit it.

    By the way, according to my military sources, he is a shade of green: dark green, and that’s the way he’s voting.

  • Cooky642

    Hello, dear Elkabrikir. Nice to see you back with your no-nonsense practicality.

    Dr. Tilford is certainly right about Gen. Powell having had the Republican nomination if he’d wanted it. Many of us were deeply disappointed that Gen. Powell opted out. (Further proof that God “protects fools and small children”….and it’s been a looong time since I was a small child!)

    Gen. Powell has had a long and illustrious career, and I hope history is kind to him. However, he’s lost any respect and admiration I had for him. A man (black, white, or pink-with-purple-polka-dots) who advocates the genocide of his own people has nothing to say that I’m interested in hearing.