When it comes to projecting potential Presidential candidates for the Year 2000, no name is mentioned with more awe and reverence than that of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell. He seems to have an impeccable war record, having served honorably in Viet Nam. He is a black man who rose through the ranks to the highest position in the military. He bears the glow of military victory (the preposterously one-sided Gulf War). The media– especially Time Magazine–write fawning, adoring pieces about him. If he does run, it will likely be as a Republican, and the Republicans expect that he will garner the largest percentage of black votes in the history of the party.
General Colin Powell is a coward and a moral disgrace.
Firstly, let’s please toss out the Gulf War. Iraq is a tiny little country with a population of about 14 million (20% of which are rebellious Kurds) in a remote part of the world that happens to have a lot of oil. You heard me right: Iraq has–count them–about 14 million people. The United States, at 260 million, is about 18 times as large. So we have a 800 pound gorilla taking on a 45 pound weakling. Time Magazine tries to make you think that Iraq is huge and powerful by using distorted maps that show the country almost encompassing the globe.
Saddam Hussein is a petty, tin-pot dictator who can’t even count on the unabridged support of his own armies. The U.S. victory over Iraq was a masterful exercise in public relations. Militarily, it was the most one-sided battle in modern history: more than 100,000 Iraqi soldiers died compared to about 50 Americans. I am not exaggerating. This was not a “war”– a war has to have at least one or two battles. Had Schwarzkopf, Powell and company lost, it would have been the most ridiculously unbelievable result in the history of the world. Even Goliath was only three times the size of David. So don’t tell me that Powell was courageous or extraordinarily clever or “ingenious”— please. All he had to do was tell his men to point their nose cones or turrets at Baghdad and count out the medals afterwards (more than one per combatant). One look at the $50 billion in hardware bearing down on them and the Iraqi’s fled. Yet, with overwhelming military, political, and economic superiority the U.S. didn’t even succeed in removing Hussein from power. Nor did they “restore” democracy to Kuwait (the same fat cats rule as before). Considering subsequent events, this was a colossal failure. It was a failure of will, a failure of intelligence, and a failure of diplomacy. Powell deserves credit for looking very nice in his uniform.
Then there was Bosnia.
I can’t, in this space, give you a detailed history of the Bosnian conflict (check the Globe & Mail, or the New York Times Review of Books for some excellent summaries), but this is essentially what happened: Bosnia and Serbia were the two largest components of the former Federation of Yugoslavia. They became separate nations when Yugoslavia disintegrated in the late 1980’s. Bosnia, comprised mostly of Muslims, but with a substantial population of ethnic Serbs, declared itself independent in April 1992, and was quickly recognized by the U.S. and other Western powers. War broke out and in the first six months, Serbia– please don’t call it a “Christian” nation–, with the aid of a rebel force comprised of Bosnian Serbs, and with overwhelming military superiority, seized 3/4 of Bosnia’s territory. Within those same six months, at least 20,000 Bosnian Muslims–men, women, children–were systematically exterminated. This was quickly termed “ethnic cleansing” by the Serbs themselves. Their intent was not only to conquer the territories of Bosnia, but to make it impossible for Bosnians to repopulate the area afterwards. The correct term was genocide. It was only the beginning.
It is well-documented (see the New York Times Review of Books , December 18, 1997) that George Bush and Colin “Neville Chamberlain” Powell were fully aware of the nature of this conflict by September 1991. The CIA (right, for a change) reported that Serbs were raping, beating, torturing, incarcerating and starving tens of thousands of Muslims, and that the Muslims, heavily out-gunned, were unable to resist. These reports were corroborated by reporters, U.N. officials, and aid workers. In other words, atrocities on a scale unseen since World War II were taking place in Bosnia while the Western Powers– which the U.S. tirelessly brags of leading– did nothing.
Actually, the U.S. did worse than nothing: they imposed an arms embargo on the entire region. This had the effect of preserving a huge military advantage for the aggressor, Serbia, and preventing a member nation of the U.N. from defending itself against massive, relentless terror. It was as if we had announced that to prevent the Nazi Holocaust, we should have prevented the Jews and Nazis from getting any more weapons from us. There is good reason to believe that if the Western Powers had allowed Bosnia to arm itself, the conflict would have soon stale-mated and the world would have spared the hideous tragedy that followed instead.
It is important at this point to consider the two ghosts haunting U.S. foreign policy at this stage. They are the Holocaust (World War II) and the Viet Nam War. In the case of the former, the Western Nations waited too long before taking concerted action against Hitler, thereby allowing six million Jews to die in the concentration camps. The Western powers even refused to accept Jewish refugees from Germany in the early stages of the Holocaust, thereby proving, to Hitler’s satisfaction, that nobody wanted the Jews. After the war, the world collectively pledged to never again stand by and do nothing when confronted with such a monstrous evil.
In the case of Viet Nam, the U.S. embroiled itself in a war it could not win, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, and paralyzing domestic conflict. After this war, the U.S. promised itself to never again get involved in a “quagmire”. Powell sees this failure as a lack of will on the part of the U.S. More sensible commentators observe that the U.S. intervened militarily on behalf of an unpopular, unelected, undemocratic government.
Colin Powell and George Bush looked at Bosnia and saw the Holocaust but chose to report to the American people that they saw Viet Nam and chose to do nothing to stop the genocide. Bush hoped it would go away by itself before the elections of 1992. When candidate Clinton attacked Bush’s inaction, Colin Powell, in a major speech given during the election campaign (which Generals should stay out of), declared that he would never allow U.S. soldiers to be committed to another Viet Nam-like quagmire. So here we had a General telling elected politicians just what kind of war he might be willing to fight if asked. Just who is running the country here? Powell should have been dismissed immediately, like McArthur, but his personal popularity was such that politically it could not be done. And why was he popular? I don’t know. Would he have been so popular in a business suit instead of a uniform with lots of medals on it? How about a waist coat and top hat?
The point cannot be made forcefully enough: Colin Powell, along with George Bush and Lawrence Eagleburger, and other foreign policy advisors are personally responsible for a policy that resulted in massive genocide. They created this policy in direct opposition to their own staffers who knew what was going on. Several of them resigned in disgust. Some privately cheered Clinton when he spoke out against the inactivity.
You might argue that their policies merely reflected a consensus of the U.S. electorate. However, polls taken during the presidential election in 1992 showed an alarming (to Bush) tendency among voters to favor some kind of decisive action. The average voter wasn’t so stupid as to think that the world should stand by and watch thousands of innocent women and children murdered in cold blood. The average voter didn’t believe that Bosnia was an inexhaustible quagmire that could never be saved. So Bush and Powell were not being merely politically astute when they decided not to intervene: they were also cowards.
We all went to see Schindler’s List and we all tsk-tsked and wrung our hands and then breathed a sigh of relief. The fact that this movie exists and even won a few academy awards proves that our society knows evil when it sees it and is prepared to do the right thing! Well, this movie took no courage to make: in hindsight, we were all in the resistance. If Spielberg had had any guts he would have done a movie on Bosnia because, yes, we did stand by once again, wringing our hands and shaking our heads, and we let it happen when we could have prevented it. And while Christian talk shows and magazine are all abuzz with Paul Marshall’s book on the persecution of Christians around the world, no one weeps for Sarajevo and Srebrenica.
It should be noted that Clinton’s performance on the issue was only marginally better. Once he was elected to office, he did everything he could to evade responsibility for his campaign promise to help the Bosnians. He sent William Christopher to Europe to get consent for military action but the Europeans were afraid of retaliation against the U.N. ground troops. This was convenient for Clinton because he could blame them, for a time, for his inactivity. The U.N. troops should have withdrawn immediately and air strikes should have commenced immediately. In the end, the Bosnian’s themselves rallied and took back some of the territory. By this time, the entire region was a cauldron of seething racial hatred.
Colin Powell’s actions during this crisis are morally indefensible and cowardly. I hope and pray that if he does choose to run for president, voters take a very close look at his performance and quickly relegate him to the dustbin of history where he belongs.