Powell Bashers Dead Wrong
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First, legendary singer-activist Harry Belafonte branded Secretary of State Colin Powell a "house slave" for defending President Bush's policies. Then a loud chorus of black Democrats, peace activists, and liberal writers lambasted Powell for supposedly caving in to Bush war hawks and parroting their hard line against Saddam Hussein. Their angry message is that Powell has betrayed his principles, and betrayed blacks.
Powell is an easy and obvious target. He is seen more frequently on TV and in public forums than anyone else in the Bush administration, including Bush, arm-twisting Congress and the United Nations to wage war against Iraq. And it's this passionate advocacy of Bush's war policy that seems to fly in the face of his long-standing advocacy of a bi-partisan, global engagement approach to diplomacy. Also, polls show that anti-Iraq war sentiment is greater among blacks than other Americans. This appears to bolster Belafonte's charge that in lending his name and stature to a president who is openly hostile to the interests of African-Americans, Powell is a racial traitor.
The Powell bashers are dead wrong on both counts. Neither Powell, nor the so-called Bush hawks, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, has given any public or private hint of any behind the scenes battle over Bush policy on Iraq, the war on terrorism, the Middle East conflict, North Korea, Cuba, or nuclear disarmament treaties. In countless interviews, Powell has repeatedly called Hussein a bad guy, and said that the U.S. should use any option, including a military invasion, to get rid of him.
Powell has always been the consummate team player, and reliable Republican policy spokesman. In President's the Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. administrations, he took orders, followed directions, and strayed not one inch from their policy position on the My-Lai Massacre in Vietnam, the Panama invasion, and the Iran-Contra scandal. Bush Jr. would not have picked him as Secretary of State if there were any doubt about his reliability or loyalty.
Powell is an effective point man for Bush policy on Iraq because he's immensely popular, well respected, and admired by European, Asian and African diplomats. He is constantly in demand to attend the top international summits, confabs, and symposiums on development issues. He gives the Bush administration foreign policy luster and credibility that it can't buy. Democrats and Republican leaders have also heaped mountains of praise on him.
Presidents Reagan, Bush Sr., Gerald Ford, and such Republican bigwigs as William Buckley were star struck enough with the general's magnetism and perceived popularity that they even touted him as a running mate to Republican presidential contender, Bob Dole in 1996. They remembered that in some opinion polls, Powell actually made it a horserace in a head to head contest with President Clinton. They figured that as the party's vice-presidential candidate he could breath some life in the stillborn campaign of Dole, while not alienating the party's conservative hard liners.
But just as Powell has been dutiful to Republican presidents on foreign policy matters, despite Belafonte's verbal mugging, he has not been a slavish sycophant to them on racial matters. In his autobiography, "My American Journey," Powell chastised Reagan for "insensitivity" on race, and openly condemned his boss Bush Sr. for making escaped black convict Willie Horton the poster boy in his 1988 presidential campaign for crime to inflame white voters. And in an interview after the O.J. Simpson trial, he cited the racist remarks of rogue LAPD cop, Mark Furman in the trial, as proof that racism is still very much alive and well in America. At the Republican Convention in San Diego in 1996, conservatives greeted his speech with a mix of jeers and stone silence when he touted affirmative action, pro-choice, and social and education programs. At the Republican National Convention in 2000, he again reminded Republicans that race casts a damaging "shadow" over American society.
Even when Bush backed a lawsuit by white students to dump the University of Michigan's race-based programs, Powell also did not back away from his strong support of affirmative action. Polls show that he is still much admired and respected by blacks. The worst that most say about him is that he's in the wrong party.
In his press conference announcing his appointment of Colin Powell as Secretary of State, Bush predicted that he would be one of America's great Secretaries of State. It's way too soon to tell whether Powell can fulfill that prediction. He still must navigate the explosive political minefield of Iraq, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the war on terrorism. But to think that he won't try to be the best that Bush bragged he will be, let alone that he betrayed his principles and blacks in the process, is to invent a Powell that never existed.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. Visit his news and opinion Web site: www.thehutchinsonreport.com. His latest book is "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).