The Colin Powell Ethics Problem

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The ethics news today begins with the death of Colin Powell, who died this morning, according to his family. He deserves the accolades for his service and leadership skills, but in the Ethics Alarms annals, he ranks as an ethics disappointment.

As the obituaries will certainly mention, Powell, the U.S.’s first African American national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of state, would have also been its first black President if he had been willing to run. Shades of Eisenhower, he was courted as a Presidential candidate by both Republicans and Democrats before deciding in 1995 that the challenge would take him away from his family, and acceding to his wife’s objections and fears (she was reportedly afraid he would be assassinated). Thus instead of the bi-partisan, unifying figure of Colin Powell, we got Bush, and then the hollow, racially divisive Barack Obama. And here we are.

Yes, I lay much of what has happened to the nation in the 21st Century at Powell’s feet. The majority of our Presidents sacrificed greatly to seek and accept the office; I do not forgive Powell for passing the buck when he was in a unique position to unify the nation and particularly the races at a turning point in our history. He was called: it is as simple as that. As a good citizen and soldier, when you are called, you have an ethical obligation to answer. Powell did not meet that obligation. America is much the worse for it.

I used to work with a former State Department employee on sexual harassment and leadership seminars for the government. In front of government employees, she would cite Powell as the individual who naturally came to mind when one thought of “ethics.” This assertion required too much selective amnesia for me. Also on the negative side of Powell’s ledger was his role in the decision to invade Iraq under Bush II. Powell made the case for the attack before the U.N., but when no “weapons of mass destruction” were found, the chant became “Bush lied and people died”—there was no lie—and Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld as well as other administration officials (notably Paul Wolfowitz) were vilified along with Bush, Powell made full use of his Teflon and avoided most of the criticism. Michael Moore gave him the silk-glove treatment in his vicious and substantially false documentary “Fahrenheit 9-11.” Powell and his allies managed to make certain, once he had resigned as Secretary of State, that everyone knew Powell had believed the invasion be a mistake of potentially disastrous dimensions. Well, why didn’t he stop it?

“What if that same voice that publicly proclaimed the necessity of invading Iraq had instead told Bush privately that it was not merely an invitation to unintended consequences but a mistake, as he personally believed it to be? What if he had said no to Bush when he asked him to speak before the U.N.? Powell would almost certainly have been obligated to resign, and many if not all of his top staff members involved in the Iraq issue would also have quit; several had already considered doing so the previous summer.” Those were the questions raised by a New York Times profile in 2020. Powell was “not the resigning type,’ the piece concluded.

Oh. He’s off the hook then! What a great American!

Powell never stepped up to explain the circumstances that led Bush to make the decision he did, nor would he publicly defend his former boss at all. Powell did reveal that he opposed the decision to go to war. This was enough to insulate him from attacks from the Left, and Powell carefully avoided and contact with the Bush White House alumni after leaving the administration. That is not what I call sterling accountability. Powell served his country as a soldier, and deserves respect and praise for that. I regard his decisions and conduct after leaving the military as an ethics tragedy and a leadership failure.

Meanwhile, Powell’s death, vaguely described as due to Wuhan virus “complications,” was immediately exploited by Fox News and other conservative outlets this morning as more evidence that the vaccinations don’t work, since Powell was “fully vaccinated.” This is nauseating and indefensible:

  • The spin began without anyone knowing what “the complications” were.
  • Powell is a single individual, if a high profile one. One incident doesn’t prove anything. Nobody has claimed that the vaccination is 100% effective.
  • Powell was 84, what another old soldier, my dad, referred to as “the red zone,” when just waking up alive is an achievement. At 84, you can die from “complications” of laughing too hard.

32 thoughts on “The Colin Powell Ethics Problem

    • AND Parkinson’s!

      I’m so annoyed by this “complications of Covid” lie. He died from complications of multiple myeloma and Parkinson’s disease! It’s ass backwards! If this “pandemic” has done anything, it’s demonstrated how wonderful the modern American medical industrial complex is at keeping Americans alive despite the ravages of old age and all sorts of dread diseases. Why has the U.S. had so many “covid deaths?” Because the CDC has come up with a goofy way of defining covid deaths to inflate that number and we have an incredibly fragile population that has been kept alive unlike any other population in the world. Colin Powell would have been dead twenty years ago if he lived in India where he would have lived to a ripe old age of sixty four.

      • “Complications of Covid.” What a joke. The covid brought on the blood cancer and the Parkinson’s. Right. Can’t anybody understand and communicate in English?

      • If you look, and you’re allowed to see, “covid deaths” invariably involve some sort of dread underlying condition.

        I have to say the entirely bogus notion we’re all entitled to live fully until we’re a hundred, or at least ninety, is a baby-boomer phenomenon. And it’s distorted people’s perception of reality and old age. Sixty is not the new anything. It’s old age.

  1. Jack,
    Your assessment of Powell mirrors my own. His 1994 “Leadership Secrets…” book was a good read, but his failure to step up and run for the presidency displayed a fundamental principle of leadership -particularly military leadership: putting yourself last. Great soldier, but no statesman.

  2. I also don’t appreciate him turning on the GOP once Obama was running, going all-in for him, and pushing the narrative that the GOP was racist because of the death of George Khan, a Muslim captain in the army, I believe of Pakistani descent. I think he may even have been the son of the attorney who said he’d be glad to lend Trump his copy of the Constitution. Powell was looking to burnish his legacy with blacks and not go down as an Uncle Tom.

    I don’t know about his decision not to pursue a further career in politics. He served 32 years in the army and made it to the top post of them all. He’d earned the right to retire and say “I did my time, I gave 30+ years to this country, but I’m done now and I’m going to spend the remaining years God gives me doing the things I couldn’t do then, like taking my grandson fishing and teaching my granddaughter to swim. Don’t call, because I won’t pick up. Don’t come knocking, because I won’t answer the door.” After a point, are you allowed to refuse the call, and decide you want to do the things that make YOU happy? I think you are, in fact I think you’re always allowed to do that, you don’t have to do some kind of obligation first.

    Could he have united this country if he had run in 1996? Maybe. Could he have been a target for assassination? Also maybe. Racism was much more open then, in fact you might call some of what went on then (Ruby Ridge, Waco, Just-us Township, Timothy McVeigh) the second post Civil Rights Act “wave” of organized racism (the first being right after the Act became law). The Oklahoma bombing aside, though, I think a presidential (or presidential candidate) assassination was a bit out of those folks’ league. Even using my Tom Clancy-esque imagination, I do not believe they had either the organization or the resources to pull something like that off, especially not with communications and information technology two and a half, almost three decades back from today. Plus, his wife didn’t want it. I’m not married, of course, but I know you are, Jack. Some might say your first duty is to your spouse. I don’t know about that, but an objecting spouse is a pretty strong bar to any undertaking. Heck, if I were married I wouldn’t go to a half-Saturday event without getting my wife’s blessing (I also wouldn’t let her go to one without getting mine, there’s cleaning, fixing, and shopping to be done and often the weekend is the only time you can do it), leave alone making a five or eight year commitment to a major undertaking like the presidency.

    Assuming he wins in 1996, does he win again in 2000? Probably, since the economy was good historically and might have been even better with none of the distracting and upsetting Monica Lewinsky stuff, plus the Democrats would have been hard-pressed to find someone who could have beaten him with his color working for him. How would he have handled 9/11? Probably pretty well, since he was historically involved and did not botch things – until he became GWB’s mouthpiece at the UN for Iraq. Would he have gone into Iraq? To hear him afterward, no. In retrospect, that would have been the right decision from the US point of view. Saddam wasn’t immortal, and he’d be 84 years old today assuming one of his sons or senior staff didn’t arrange for him to ah, retire sooner, leaving an opening for the West to push “reform.” Would racial relations have been better then? Almost certainly, they were better than they are now. Overall, there’s a pretty good chance that, when President Colin Powell leaves the White House in 2005, the US is in a better position than it was historically, and most likely no junior senator from Illinois rises to run in 2008, when he wouldn’t have the chops to defeat a GOP incumbent or primary a Democratic incumbent. That’s not to say Obama might not ever have reached the White House, but it would have been unlikely, since this nation could only elect the first black president once.

    • “I don’t know about his decision not to pursue a further career in politics. He served 32 years in the army and made it to the top post of them all. He’d earned the right to retire and say “I did my time, I gave 30+ years to this country, but I’m done now and I’m going to spend the remaining years God gives me doing the things I couldn’t do then….”

      Yes, but the comparison this post evoked for me was that of Washington. He, too, could have said all of those things–and we probably would not have a country anymore. Powell had a unique opportunity to act for the greater good. Of course he did not have to take that opportunity, but a greater man would have.

      For my part, I follow that calling on a daily basis by staying OUT of politics.

      -Jut

      • Washington had planned to step down after his first term, but decided there were too many problems on his watch, including a potential rift in his cabinet, to do so. He was already in office, however, unlike Powell, who was back in private life. Washington also deliberately chose to step down after his second term, wisely, to avoid getting entrenched and to show the world that the passing of power in the United States could be done without violence. In Washington’s case it wouldn’t have been not answering the call so much as leaving the field before the battle was over.

        Speaking of answering the call, Ulysses S. Grant was initially refused reactivation of his commission when the Civil War broke out, and had to rely on Illinois authorities to get back in the proverbial saddle. He answered the call, but the call almost refused him.

    • Good analysis, Steve-O, and I agree with all you said. Well, except, I though Bill Clinton was the first Black President? 😉

  3. Couldn’t agree less with the ethics point. Deciding not to run after consulting family and (apparently) clearly hearing from his wife that she was against it is not unethical. Running in the face of that family request might be. Or is this a catch-22? Unethical for not bringing his leadership skills and uniting persona to the Presidency, and on the other hand unethical for ignoring his wife’s (apparent) strong wishes. Couldn’t agree more, though, about the lack of ethics of Fox and others (including BBC this far) calling it complications of COVID. My Zeus, the man had multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood that suppresses the body’s immune response. It is extremely difficult to treat and approximately impossible to cure. He is also reported to have Parkinson’s. So, two greatly immune suppressing diseases. Even if fully vaccinated against Covid-19, those who are immunocompromised are at greater risk from the virus. He died from complications of those diseases, an extreme virus being one possible complication. Why his family said he died of Covid complications is another matter. Why?

    • Yeah, I wondered about that too. Right now, Fox is still flogging the Covid Complcations angle, even with thin ifo that Powell was suffering from two serious illnesses.

      Powell’s “nation or family” issue is also related to the Buttigieg scandal.

      • The difference is, “Mayor Pete” probably did the nation a favor by staying home with his family over the past few months. Considering his ridiculous explanation that the supply-chain crisis is happening because the economy is doing so great, he probably could only have made things worse if he were doing his job.

        Let’s not forget that when he was appointed, the only qualification anyone could think of in defense of his selection was that he thinks trains are kind of neat-o…

        • They say that because the real reason is risky to be frank about. He was appointed because he is gay. Biden (or his handlers) regards “diversity” and checking off demographic boxes as more important than competence or real qualifications. This was as ridiculous as Trump appointing Ben Carson as head of HUD.

        • Putting aside the opportunity to make crude and cheap jokes and pokes, haven’t we just spent decades trying to make the point that how individuals work out their sexuality isn’t supposed to matter substantively? BTW, DNI Richard Grenell was the first openly gay cabinet level person, and he was appointed by Trump, because he was actually qualified. The fact that Mayor Pete was high profile and gay doesn’t change the fact that his last job was mayor of a small (just over 100,000) city in the Midwest. How that qualifies him to be in charge of all of the nation’s roads, ports, airports, and railways is beyond me. The fact that he is attracted to the same gender doesn’t give him any special knowledge wrt any of those things. This is a blatant affirmative action hire and political payoff, and those don’t work out well.

  4. I really liked Colin Powel but I’m not too sure that anything Colin Powel could have done as president would have stopped or slowed the progressive’s massive push towards totalitarianism in the 21st century and I don’t think it’s likely that race relations would be any different today because dividing society is what Marxist minded totalitarians do (divide and conquer) and pouring gasoline on race relations is right up their alley.

    That said…

    We can’t reasonably predict what would have changed if Colin Powel had been elected President but things would certainly have changed (maybe good maybe bad) because of that single pebble in the pond.

      • What’s to second guess? He put the needs and desires of his family over the needs of his country and countrymen at a critical time in history, something virtually every major figure in American history did NOT do. I don’t even think he would have been an especially good President, but the decision speaks for itself. Mamie hated having Ike as President. His sons barely knew him. But he knew that Adlai Stevenson, a wimp, would have been a disaster maneuvering through the Cold War.

        • Jack wrote, “He put the needs and desires of his family over the needs of his country and countrymen at a critical time in history…”

          Can’t any time in the existence of a country be dubbed as being a critical time in history?

          Powell put the needs of the country ahead of his family by honorably serving in the United States of America for over 30 years. What was going on that was so critical around 1995 when Powel made his choice? Remember if he had run as a Republican he would have been facing the incumbent President Clinton who was rather popular at the time. We weren’t even fighting a war at that time. There is nothing to prove that his presence in a Presidential campaign or as President of the United States would have actually improved a thing.

          Why didn’t Norman Schwarzkopf run for president, he was a hell of a leader and he was encouraged to run too. With Schwarzkopf’s popularity at that time he could have been the first Independent to be elected as President which would have meant beating Clinton. With Schwarzkopf’s leadership style he might have been able to drag the creeping extremes back towards the center. Why not lay much of what has happened to the nation in the 21st Century at Schwarzkopf’s feet.

          Imagine if Clinton had not been President. Maybe his presence was that pebble in the pond that inspired progressives to step up their game. Why not lay much of what has happened to the nation in the 21st Century at Clinton’s feet.

          I’m sure we could come up with more people that could have been that pebble in the pond one way or the other but it’s kind of like futilely kicking a dead horse or pissing in the wind. We must learn from the history as it actually existed not try to predict what a different history could have been if only a different pebble had fallen into the pond.

          Jack wrote, “I lay much of what has happened to the nation in the 21st Century at Powell’s feet.”

          You’re certainly welcome to your opinion on this but I just don’t see the justification for laying what has happened to the nation in the 21st Century at Powell’s feet.

          • Well, Schwarzkopf would have first been running against George Bush, or against Bush and Clinton both. Or would Perot have been in the race as well? We haven’t truly had a 4 way presidential race since 1860, I don’t believe, and that one was fairly regional.

            I think Powell might have had a chance in 1996 — the Republicans didn’t exactly put up a world beating candidate, if you’ll recall. If he had won then, it’s likely he would’ve gotten re-elected I’d think but in any case Bush would have remained governor of Texas for a while longer. Maybe we wouldn’t have had the specter of presidential dynasties that we’ve had the last 20 years or so.

            Certainly if Powell won in 1996, we don’t have Bush v. Gore in 2000. Maybe we go after al Qaeda in the late 90s and never have a 9/11. Hard to see all the ultimate fallout — but I think we’d probably be in a better case than we are now.

            As far as Powell not abiding by his wife’s wishes — well, the records there are mixed. I also recall the (bad) example of John Edwards — he ran for the office despite knowing that, if he won, his wife would likely die from cancer during his first term. At the time, I thought that exhibited terrible judgment, but it’s not the same as your spouse simply hating the idea.

            I’ll toss out another name that was floated during the 2000s — Condoleeza Rice. I don’t know if she could have won, but she was light years ahead of either McCain or Romney. And only mid 50s at the time — even today she’s not all that old (66).

            • 1. Powell would have won in a landslide in 2000, which is when he should have run.
              2. Rice was a) a woman b) black and c) not very good at her job. She also is not a dynamic presence as a speaker. She would have been an awful candidate, and the support for her was fanciful as well as overstated.

            • Diego Garcia wrote, “Well, Schwarzkopf would have first been running against George Bush, or against Bush and Clinton both.”

              Schwarzkopf’s only reasonable time to run as an Independent would have been in 1992 instead of Perot. Could he have won as an Independent in 1992, maybe, maybe not (probably not); the Independents siphoned a LOT of votes away from the establishment Republicans in that election.

              My observation in the 1992 campaign; I got the feeling during the campaign that George H. W. Bush was just going through the motions and really didn’t want to be president for another term, so if by some chance George H. W. Bush could have chosen not to run and backed Schwarzkopf as an independently minded Republican it could have been an epic presidential race resulting in a Schwarzkopf win. Would Schwarzkopf have been a good president, maybe, maybe not, we’ll never know.

              Maybe we should lay much of what has happened to the nation in the 21st Century at George H. W. Bush’s feet after all hind-sight shows us that he really shouldn’t have run in 1992, he should have stepped aside and gotten behind a better candidate, maybe Schwarzkopf, maybe someone else. What’s pretty clear in retrospect is that if the Republicans and Independents could have joined forces with one really good candidate they might have trounced Clinton and shifted the balance of power.

              Maybe we should lay much of what has happened to the nation in the 21st Century at the feet of Ross Perot for running in 1992, siphoning off votes away from Bush and handing the White House to Clinton on a silver platter.

              There is so much blame to go around. We can lay much of what has happened to the nation in the 21st Century at the feet of any politician and any potential politician for what they have done and what they haven’t done over the last 30 years; H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Ross Perot, Norman Schwarzkopf, G.W. Bush, Colin Powell, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, etc, etc are certainly included in that list. It depends on your point of view as to who get’s the majority of the blame. Although there is plenty of blame to go around, I dump most of what’s going on in the 21st century on President Obama for dumping gasoline on a fire instead of using his political clout to squelch the growing progressive extremist movement, Obama literally called the extremists to action and politically benefited from their extremism.

              Jack wrote, “Powell would have won in a landslide in 2000, which is when he should have run.”

              Powell was certainly popular enough at the time and had enough political clout to make a really good run for it if that’s what he really had wanted to do. Would Powell been a better President than G.W. Bush under the same conditions, I suspect he might have been but we’ll never know.

              Jack wrote, “[Rice] would have been an awful candidate, and the support for her was fanciful as well as overstated.”

              I completely agree.

              • I actually lay much of the blame for 1992 on Pat Buchanan. Not just that he campaigned against Bush in the primaries — he wasn’t the first to do that — but that he never really got behind Bush in the general election, and I think his supporters stayed home.

                And, after all, isn’t that the goal of negative advertising? Not really to change minds so much, but to impel people who might vote for the other candidate to stay home and not vote at all.

                Look at 2020: All the significant Democratic candidates got behind Biden. Would he have been elected if Sanders (or candidate xxx) hadn’t actively campaigned for him? I doubt it.

                ============

                Regarding Rice, I’ll concede Jack’s point — except that I still maintain she’d’ve been a better candidate than McCain or Romney. At least she wouldn’t have laid down and given up.

                • McCain was terrible, but with the economy crashing I think any Republican would have lost to Obama. Mitt should have and could have won, but too many conservatives wouldn’t hold their noses and vote for him, and he let Obama get away with so many dirty tactics.

          • “Can’t any time in the existence of a country be dubbed as being a critical time in history?’

            Absolutely. Which is why Powell’s response would be wrong at any time in our history. And it was obvious at the time that a black man who appealed to both parties would be a spectacular opportunity to address all sorts of growing problems, especially after Clinton blew his chance to bring the country closer together.

  5. Yes, I lay much of what has happened to the nation in the 21st Century at Powell’s feet. The majority of our Presidents sacrificed greatly to seek and accept the office; I do not forgive Powell for passing the buck when he was in a unique position to unify the nation and particularly the races at a turning point in our history. He was called: it is as simple as that. As a good citizen and soldier, when you are called, you have an ethical obligation to answer…

    Bluntly, no, for all sorts of reasons. Here are just a few, of which some only apply in regards to certain kinds of polities:-

    – Nobody whatsoever may bind me but me, or you but you, or him but him, and so on. All else is slavery. And any doctrine that holds that there is constructive or implied binding, makes slavery just such an obligation too.

    – It is using a person as a means to other ends, even if those ends are also his.

    – It rests on consequentialism, in that the obligation is only imputed because it is supposed necessary to avoid the consequences of not obeying it.

    – And it denies anyone in Powell’s position any agency, any capacity to decide for himself what is right, all things considered, including his own assessment and consideration of the very things you hold binding on him regardless of him.

    • I think this is a bigger question of what obligations do we all owe to society and what obligations do those with special or unique talents owe and to who? MacArthur was retired from the US Army as of 1937, should he have refused FDR’s recall to active duty?

      • No, but he’d have been much better off if he’d retired again before 1950. Not only did he let his armies get sucker punched by the Chinese, it is certainly possible that, once Truman decided that our aims in Korea were limited, there could have been a cease in 1951 but for MacArthur’s sabotage.

        Wasn’t it Bradley who made the famous statement that this would have been the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time? MacArthur never accepted that.

        There is something to be said (I’m looking at you, Biden) for having the capacity of knowing when you’re past your expiration date — but always a tough thing to know.

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