The Tragedy of Colin Powell

In the cavalcade of heroes that we trot out each Black History Month, there is a special VIP section reserved for Negro Firsts. The belief is that each one is a barometer charting the falling pressures of racism in America. But the truth is that for every racial pioneer, there are hundreds, if not thousands of black also-rans who made the mistake of being ahead of history. Still, the job is not enviable: the First is generally required to perform a high-wire act in hurricane winds. And, in the last months of his tenure as Secretary of State, one starts wishing that Colin Powell had done so with the benefit of a net.

Since it is unlikely that he will return to the State Department even if a disaster for democracy occurs and Bush is returned to the White House, we are possibly looking at the twilight of Powell's career as a professional diplomat. Historians are trained to avoid snap, in-the-moment assessments, but at this juncture, Powell's tenure at the State Department appears to have no clear diplomatic legacy, save the dubious distinction of being First.

Last year, on the verge of the invasion of Iraq, Harry Belafonte denounced Powell as a House Negro. But it's not as simple as Powell being some species of sellout (Negro Domesticus) – because were that merely the case, Powell the political figure would not be nearly as tragic a figure as he ultimately is. Unlike Thomas and Rice, Powell felt no need to disrespect the in-the-street activism that paved the way for his present position (Thomas decried the "specious" social science underpinning the Brown v. Board of Education decision and has frequently criticized the Warren Supreme Court that decided it, struck down segregated transportation in Montgomery, Alabama and outlawed the anti-miscegenation laws that would have prevented Thomas himself from living in Virginia with his white wife.)

Rice – who grew up in Alabama – has taken great pains to point out that her family was not among that set of activist Christians who felt it necessary to march in the streets to end segregation (a statement that runs counter to her own father's political activism, which included his traveling the country giving speeches denouncing the war in Vietnam.)

Powell, on the other hand, wrote in his autobiography of the fury he experienced as a young soldier in Vietnam when King was assassinated and noted that even the radical voices of H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael were "like a fire bell ring in the night, waking up defenders of the status quo with the message that change had better be on the way."

Powell is the most popular of the black Republicans and has more support within black communities than any of the other institutionally-sanctioned black power brokers. He has benefited from the perception that he is not among the Negro-loathing mean-spirits of the G.O.P. – a grace that does not extend to his son Michael, who as Chairman of the FCC presided over the indictment and arrest of Janet Jackson's right nipple when he wasn't busy slackening the laws that inhibit corporate monopolization of the media. (Asked what he planned to do about the alleged "digital divide" that results in poor – presumably black – children having less access to computers, the Young Powell remarked to the effect "there's a Mercedes divide too. I want one and can't afford one, but it's not government's job to do anything about it.")

But the House Negro indictment can't be dismissed out of hand, either. He took office as the most obvious gesture of racial reconciliation within an administration that required the disfranchisement of black voters in order to come to power. Powell's own foibles played into the House Negro perception – commissioning a Scottish coat-of-arms in recognition of his distant European ancestry, with seemingly little concern for the bitter racial circumstances under which that Scotch blood entered his ancestral line. And even more damning is the sad irony of a black Secretary of State leading the U.S. delegation's walk-out of the United Nations World Conference Against Racism.

The politics of symbolism permeates Powell's – and to a lesser extent, Rice's – role within the administration. Powell broke ranks with the administration last year to maintain his life-long support for affirmative action during the University of Michigan case (the same case where the Bush Administration filed a friend-of-the-court brief against affirmative action). But it has to be recalled that Condoleezza Rice – a former professor and Stanford University Provost who spent her academic career attacking affirmative action – also broke ranks with the administration and supported the Michigan diversity policies. The fact was that Bush benefited from having the top Negroes in his administration disagree with him publicly because that way Rice and Powell at least maintained a degree of melanin credibility. Dissing the sincere efforts of white academics to attract black students would've made those charges of House Negroism stick like bad rice. And when you get down to it, what good is having a racial token if not even white liberals think they're black enough?

But the ultimate irony of the Powell tragedy is that it is not mainly about race, but character. He took office amid grumblings from the left that his background as a general and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would lead him to pursue militarism instead of diplomacy as the Secretary of State. But Powell – like Eisenhower before him – was a general who keenly understood the dangers of over-reliance upon warfare. Madeleine Albright, Powell's predecessor as Secretary of State, criticized him, in fact, for being too reluctant to commit U.S. troops to activity.

Powell the diplomat was birthed by Powell the soldier. As Secretary of State, his vision for the world – the so-called Powell Doctrine – called for the use of military force only in circumstances where there were clear objectives, where there was domestic support and understanding for the action, and where the military could be used in precise and overwhelming forces. He also disdained using warfare to achieve what were essentially political goals. In short, Powell's vision was an attempt to correct everything that had been wrong about his own experience in Vietnam.

In the early days of the Bush Administration, and even more clearly after 9/11, though, it became apparent that foreign policy was being run out of the Pentagon and the Vice President's office – not the State Department. Powell had set himself up to be the voice of conscience in an administration that did not appear to have one. But there were also other concerns about Powell from the gate: When you get down to it, Powell was smarter, more experienced and better prepared to be President than George W. Bush was, and his status as Secretary of State might be the biggest consolation prize in history.

Powell made his disapproval of the administration's Iraq plans known early on, and as his – and numerous other former general's – calls for caution went unheeded, the Secretary's lack of influence became more publicly apparent. In past, these kinds of unbreechable gaps had led to extreme statements: Powell's predecessor Cyrus Vance had famously resigned from the Carter administration and an entire roster of career diplomats resigned in protest when the Bush Administration began its long march toward Baghdad.

The job requirements for a Negro First, however, explicitly demand that one remain loyal no matter what happens. Under no circumstances does one quit, lest it be said that members of the race are not suited to handle the pressures of the gig in the first place.

But it's hard to say that Powell was thinking about race in February 2003, when he went before the United Nations and made the case for a war he did not believe was necessary – a gesture that nudged his diplomatic career from the politically ignored over into the historically tragic. Given the nature of his comments to the journalist Bob Woodward a year later, Powell recognized even then that the ties between Iraq and Al-Qaeda were tenuous at best and that the war would likely be disastrous.

The central tragedy of Powell's tenure as Secretary of State is the failure of history to act as any sort of guide for the present. The present quagmire in Iraq is almost a made-to-order rejection of everything Powell articulated when coming into office. The ideas underpinning the "Powell Doctrine" were gleaned from Powell's own bitter experiences of combat in Vietnam. Both Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (along with Paul Wolfowitz) have spoken of the need to erase the failures in Vietnam from the American memory, to avoid history. So in rejecting the Powell Doctrine, Bush & Company were not only dismissing the Secretary's diplomatic theories, the administration was fundamentally rejecting both Powell as an individual and the portion of history that he represents. And Powell himself aborted history in choosing to remain part of the administration.

Simply put, Powell did not know when to quit.

His name, despite his high-profile and abortive dissents, is tied to one of the worst diplomatic fiascos of the past century. The Black History Month calendars may regard Powell well as a Negro First, but those of us concerned with more substantive issues have to hope that Powell is the last of his kind.

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