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.