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September 2009

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Colin Powell: American Power and Intervention from Vietnam to Iraq
Review by John M. Handley, Ph.D.
Text Box:

Christopher D. O’Sullivan, Colin Powell: American Power and Intervention from Vietnam to Iraq,Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009; 219 pages, ISBN 978-0-7425-5186-2, hardback, $34.95.

Christopher D. O’Sullivan teaches history at the University of San Francisco.  He authored Sumner Welles, Postwar Planning, and the Quest for a New World Order, which won the American Historical Association’s Gutenberg Prize in 2003.  He also authored The United Nations: A Concise History.  He served as the keynote speaker at the United Nations’ sixtieth anniversary celebrations in 2005.  Although a fellow at the Center for International Studies at the London School of Economics, he also recently taught as a Fulbright visiting professor of American foreign policy at the University of Jordan, Amman.

In this reasonably short biography of Colin Powell, Dr. O’Sullivan presents an interesting and thought-provoking account of Powell’s life and times, starting in the first chapter with his birth in 1937, his ROTC commissioning in 1958, his two tours of service in Vietnam, and his rise within the military establishment to 1980.  The second chapter addresses his noteworthy White House activities between 1980 and 1987, followed by a chapter on his service as national security advisor at the end of the Cold War, 1987-1989, in which the author evaluates Powell as perhaps the best NSC advisor since Henry Kissinger. 

Chapter 4 covers his remarkable tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, 1989-1993, while the following chapter addresses the military and diplomacy after the Cold War.  Dr. O’Sullivan then evaluates Powell’s minimal accomplishments as secretary of state, 2001-2005, with a follow-up chapter on Powell, Iraq, and the “fog of war,” in which Powell is either unable or unwilling to convince the George Bush government to adhere to his own principles known generally as the Powell Doctrine.  The book then ends with a short conclusion or a very long abstract, depending upon one’s point of view.

Lessons of Vietnam
Of considerable interest to the author is the development and entwining throughout the book of the lessons Powell learned in Vietnam, which many refer to today as the Powell Doctrine, and the influence Casper Weinberger and the Weinberger Doctrine had on Powell’s enunciating his own basically similar pronouncements. 

Weinberger offered six criteria necessary to prevent another Vietnam. These axioms include:

(1) The United States should commit forces only if the national interests of the United States or its allies are at stake;
(2) If the United States commits forces it should commit enough to get the job done;
(3) The U.S. government needs to provide its forces clear military and political objectives;
(4) The United States should be willing to change the commitment if the objectives change;
(5) The United States should use military forces only with the support of the American people and Congress; and
(6) The government should commit forces only as a last resort. 

These six axioms of Casper Weinberger eventually morphed into what is now called the Powell Doctrine with the addition of the mantra: “If you break it you have to fix it.” 

The author not only traces the military and political career of Colin Powell, but he also comments often on the in-fighting within the four administrations Powell served, starting with that of Ronald Reagan.  One gets a sense of Reagan’s lack of management skills as a host of principals vie for a position of influence until towards the end Secretary of State George Shultz establishes himself as the winner of these turf battles, with Frank Carlucci taking over Defense and Powell becoming NSC advisor.  The George H. W. Bush administration, with Dick Cheney as secretary of defense, provides Powell with some significant challenges, not the least of which was Bush’s relatively obvious and often demonstrated racism.  In the Clinton Administration, the nationally known and vastly more popular Powell often takes on political issues well beyond the reach of a Joint Chiefs chairman and, until his voluntary retirement in 1993, easily steamrolls over the foreign policy team of Secretary of State William Christopher, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, and NSC Advisor Anthony Lake. 

Powell at State
Powell’s refusal of Bill Clinton’s offer of the office of secretary of state seems to the author as an opportunity lost.  Powell, a realist, later returns in the George W. Bush administration, now taking the secretary of state position in a government run by ideological neoconservatives.  While attempting to emulate George Shultz, Powell soon learns that the seat of power is not the president, but Vice President Dick Cheney, a neo-con, who is surrounded by fellow travelers such as Donald Rumsfeld at Defense, NSC Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, John Bolton, eventually joined by General Tommy Franks and even historian Francis Fukuyama.  According to the author, Powell’s principal problem as secretary of state was that “he never established control over foreign policy,” and the rush to war with Iraq only further marginalized him.

Often Powell could not obtain even the most basic information about who was conducting foreign policy.  He seemed to lose control of the administration’s foreign policy completely, with Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice, and even John Bolton making pronouncements that normally would have been the domain of the secretary of state.  He did a poor job of protecting the State Department’s prerogatives against “assaults from the Pentagon” (164).  Powell was also troubled by the very few senior officials within the Bush administration with military experience while so many of these same officials “saw military intervention as the solution to every problem” (170). 

Although Defense had the mission of post-war stabilization in Iraq, Powell was particularly troubled by the “staffing of so much of the Coalition Provisional Authority with rank amateurs and political hacks” (178).  Powell believed that few CPA employees had the minimum professional skills necessary for post-conflict reconstruction, while the CPA’s ineptitude and incompetence became legendary.  “The CPA’s own inspector general saw it as a dumping ground for political operatives and campaign volunteers” (182), with personnel chosen more for their positions on opposition to abortion and support for capital punishment than their expertise in nation-building. 

What Could Have Been
Powell did have his supporters, and the author includes favorable comments from his deputy, Richard Armitage, head of policy planning Richard Haas, and NSC official Richard Clarke, yet the author’s conclusion addresses more of what could have been than what actually happened. 

Colin Powell performed his military-related duties in an impressive and outstanding manner and, in some cases, on a par with General George Marshall. His civilian role as secretary of state, however, was a dismal failure primarily because Powell did not insist on applying his “doctrine” to Iraq when his nation needed him to do so.  Rather than being remembered as a great secretary of state, such as Charles Evan Hughes, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, or Henry Kissinger, he joins the ranks of the least successful, such as William Rodgers, Cyrus Vance, and Alexander Haig.  The one commonality the former group shared, and the latter group lacked, was a strong relationship with the president each served. 


Dr. John M. Handley, American Diplomacy Publishers Vice-President for Outreach, is a Professor of International Relations for Webster University's Ft. Bragg and Pope AFB campuses.  A retired U.S. Army Colonel, Dr. Handley spent his Army career in military intelligence, including as a Defense Attaché, the Dean of the School of Attaché Training at the Defense Intelligence College, and Deputy, Resource Management, for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

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