When former Secretary of State Colin Powell speaks, people listen. Still one of the most respected members of a Washington foreign policy establishment that has taken a beating over the past year for being incompetent and on auto-pilot — think deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes’ comments about “the blob” and Donald Trump’s bashing of the country’s military leadership — Powell is seen as an individual with one of the most impressive national security resumes in modern American history. A three-decade career in uniform, national security adviser to Ronald Reagan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, overseer of the Gulf War, and Secretary of State to President George W. Bush will get you a lot of attention.
Powell certainly has that attention today. The hacking and mass release of some of Powell’s emails by DCLeaks has people in the political and policy worlds talking. Perhaps it was a long and stellar career in the U.S. military that helps explain why Powell used such direct and no-holds-barred language in these emails. Some partisans will call it unprofessional, slimy, or impolitic for a man of such high stature. But others will call it refreshing — a piercing of the talking point and poll-tested public statements that politicians usually use, even after public life.
As you might expect, most of the coverage of Powell’s hacked emails focuses on the 2016 presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It ain’t pretty for either of them. Trump is essentially castigated by Powell as a racist buffoon who is basing his campaign on fear and channeling all of the hate and anger that encapsulated southern whites in the 1950s and 1960s. In Powell’s eyes (as well as many Americans’ eyes), Trump is a 21st Century version of Alabama Gov. George Wallace. He even wrote to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria poking the media for being complicit in Trump’s political success by obsessively feasting on all of the outrages that come out of Trump’s mouth.
Hillary Clinton receives Powell’s wrath too. Her staff’s attempt to turn Powell’s use of a private email into a precedent is, according to the former General, a pathetic excuse to justify a horrendous practice. “I have told Hill[a]ry’s minions repeatedly that they are making a mistake trying to drag me in, yet they still try,” he wrote to Democratic heavyweight and former Bill Clinton pal Vernon Jordan. “The media isn’t fooled and she is getting crucified. The differences are profound and they know it.”
What is far more interesting in my view, however, is what Powell had to say about his former colleagues in the Bush administration. Eleven years after his resignation as Bush’s Secretary of State, Powell still holds a tremendous amount of anger towards former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. We all knew there was no love lost between the three men; the invasion of Iraq, in Powell’s mind, became a blunder of historic proportions and probably contributed to his resignation in the first place. Rumsfeld and Cheney have an equally negative view of the retired General, who is typically casted as a guy who was never on the inside to begin with and someone who tried to put the blame of Iraq’s mismanagement onto other people in the administration.
Even more interesting is who Powell conversed with when he called Dick Cheney irrelevant, Don Rumsfeld incompetent, and Paul Wolfowitz a “liar” — Condi Rice, Bush’s closest adviser and the woman who took over Powell’s job at the State Department in 2005. “One day,” Powell writes to Rice “when we both have had too many drinks we can discuss why [President George W. Bush] tolerated him and why Dick [Cheney], a successful SecDef, was so committed to Don. I must say I gagged as [President George H.W. Bush] praised him [Rumsfeld] as the ‘best’ at the statuary hall unveiling.”
Wolfowitz, a dean of the neoconservative camp and perhaps the biggest booster of Saddam Hussein’s toppling in the Bush administration at the time (he defends it as the right decision to this day), is according to Powell “a fucking liar” for trying to save himself and shovel the blame away from the Pentagon for the disbanding of the Iraqi military – a decision that turned out to be one of the stupidest moves that Washington made during the occupation. Thankfully, Powell says, “no one has really fallen for it.”
And what about Dick Cheney and his daughter, Liz, who co-wrote a book together which claimed that the world was falling apart and America was falling behind? Well, President Obama need not worry, because the Cheney’s “are idiots and spent force peddling a book that ain’t going nowhere.”
The Powell vs. Cheney saga over Iraq continues, thirteen years later.