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UNITED STATES – AUGUST 22: General Colin Powell, incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Photo by Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
The president that should have been

The president that should have been

UNITED STATES – AUGUST 22: General Colin Powell, incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Photo by Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Colin Powell’s decision not to run for the White House in 1996 was one of the most consequential moments in recent American history

Between Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the launch of Operation Desert Storm, there was a five-month pause. In that time Colin Powell – Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, America’s most senior soldier, the Bronx-born son of Jamaican immigrants – established himself as the sole conduit of information and advice from the Pentagon to the White House. 

There was no direct line from the US military headquarters in Riyadh to the Oval Office. Calls had to go through Powell. This meant he was able to present his doctrine of overwhelming force, which became known as the Powell Doctrine, with little interference. 

The results were literally earth-shaking. America assembled a counter-invasion force of 700,000 soldiers and 3,000 tanks backed up by 85 F-15 fighters, 48 F-16 fighter-bombers, two battleships, two aircraft carrier battle groups, more than a dozen other warships, a squadron of ultra-long range B-52 bombers and thousands of state-of-the-art cruise missiles that CNN was soon to show could fly round street corners like homing pigeons. 

The air war before Desert Storm lasted six weeks. It caused several powerful members of the first President Bush’s cabinet, including his defence secretary, Dick Cheney, who deferred enlisting five times so as to avoid serving in Vietnam, to become impatient. But like Nelson on the approach to Trafalgar, Powell would not be rushed. He knew this caused irritation in the White House but reckoned if it made him “a skunk at the picnic” everyone else would just have to “take a deep smell”.

He and his commander in the field, General Norman Schwarzkopf, were finally ready to launch the ground war on 14 February 1991. It lasted 100 hours. It included the biggest tank battle in US history and the loss of nine aircraft, but US combat deaths still totalled only 147 compared with between 20,000 and 35,000 on the Iraqi side. 

In the course of preparing for the campaign, Powell had been trailed round Washington and the Middle East by camera crews that caught some memorable soundbites. In one, shortly before Christmas, he told US troops in Saudi Arabia: “If we go in, we go in to win, not to fool around. When we launch it we will launch it violently. We will launch it in a way that will make it decisive…”

In another he telegraphed the way the war would pan out: “Our strategy to go after this army is very simple. First, we’re going to cut it off, and then we’re going to kill it.”

A result of this carefully distilled rhetoric was that the caution, patience and methodical planning that defined Powell’s leadership could be viewed afterwards as bold, decisive and triumphant. 

Powell was at this point in his career a radical centrist in uniform. He was a moderate in everything except love of country and pursuit of victory. By winning the Gulf War quickly and emphatically he laid to rest the ghosts of Vietnam, where he’d won a purple heart, but also established himself as America’s next Eisenhower – if that is what he wanted to be.

The war was short because having achieved his goal of evicting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, Bush Sr called a halt to the fighting. But even before it was over, commentators were calling Powell “presidential timber” and wondering when he would run. 

By October 1995 there were at least three “draft Powell” committees offering unsolicited advice on whom to hire and how to run a campaign to make Bill Clinton a one-term president. Polls showed he might not beat Robert Dole for the Republican nomination, but would definitely beat Clinton in a general election. Clinton raged around the Oval Office shouting at his communications director, George Stefanopoulos, about how Powell would win because the media would give him a free ride. 

Powell didn’t run. His decision not to was the political event of 1995. His wife Alma, who suffered from depression and worried about her husband’s safety, could hardly bear the thought of him campaigning or of the pair of them in the White House. Powell also realised he didn’t want it badly enough. He served instead as the younger Bush’s Secretary of State, presiding over American diplomacy during what his biographer, Karen de Young, has called “the biggest debacle in the history of American foreign policy”.

It was Powell – not Cheney or Bush – who presented the case for the second Gulf War to the UN and the world in January 2003. It was his laboriously crafted speech that was found afterwards to have drifted far from reality on Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. He knew the speech and the chaos that followed in Iraq was a “permanent stain” on his reputation. Robin Wright, a writer for the New Yorker who knew him well, called it a defining flaw – and yet it didn’t define him. 

When he died last week aged 84 from complications caused by Covid, Powell was remembered not as the enabler of the Iraq fiasco but as a good and reasonable man of prodigious energy and self-control who should, in retrospect, have run for president. 

To think about his life, accomplishments and decisions is to ache for an America that might have been. 

In 1998 the historian Niall Ferguson made counterfactuals fashionable with a new history of the First World War. He asked what might have happened if Britain hadn’t got involved. A couple of years later it was tempting to ask what might have happened to America if Clinton hadn’t got involved with Monica Lewinsky. But a more compelling – and plausible – counterfactual posited by Bret Stephens asks what might have happened if Powell had run

If he’d found a way to win the Republican nomination he would have seen off its right wing, probably for two terms. America’s collision with jihadism would have played out very differently and certainly without an invasion of Iraq. Had Powell run and won, America would have had a Republican president who believed in affirmative action, abortion rights and gun control. Instead it had Bush II, the Tea Party and Trump.

Politically, Powell stayed put while the party of Lincoln rode off to the right. He endorsed Obama, but by that time had already paved the way for him as a “bargainer” with white America, rather than a “challenger”. The distinction was offered by the conservative Black academic, Shelby Steele. Bargainers accept the idea of white innocence in return for white efforts to show it’s warranted; challengers confront it with righteous anger. 

The distinction doesn’t always reflect those of real life, least of all since last year’s murder of George Floyd. But it reflected Powell’s reality in 1995, on the day he said he wasn’t running for the White House, when he exulted in a country that had moved in a generation “from denying a Black man service at a lunch counter to elevating one to the highest military office in the nation and to being a serious contender for the presidency”. America was, he said, “a magnificent country” and he was proud to be one of its sons. 

Colin Powell liked cheeseburgers, Holiday Inns and restoring ancient Volvos. He would have shrugged off Trump’s statement this week that despite making “big mistakes on Iraq” and being “a classic RINO [Republican in name only],” he was being “treated in death so beautifully by the Fake News Media”. But he was saddened by the spectacle of a Senate that these days votes almost exclusively on tribal lines, emptying the centre where he felt comfortable and where he believed most voters’ hearts still lay.

He considered himself a problem-solver, not a visionary. In the end he decided this qualified him to serve presidents rather than be one, but problem-solvers are sometimes what democracies need most.