Many conservatives wonder why retired Army Gen. Colin Powell endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. The quick answer—and the most inadequate one—is that Powell is obliged to endorse the first African-American with a real chance to win the presidency. That answer lacks substance. At any point after retiring from military service, the Republican nomination for president was Colin Powell’s if he wanted it.
Additionally, Powell’s endorsement of John McCain would seem a slam dunk since both were career officers who served in Vietnam. Senator Obama, with no military experience, accused U.S. forces of bombing villages and killing innocent people. Furthermore, Obama’s long association with Weather Underground founder, terrorist-turned-professor William Ayers, bespeaks the poorest of judgment.
The reasons behind Powell’s endorsement are complex. True, Obama and Powell share the same ethnicity. Although his actions were muted by military regulations governing political activities, Powell achieved the goals of the Civil Rights struggle: a man judged by the "content of his character rather than the color of his skin." Powell’s extraordinary leadership capabilities, not race, propelled his Army career.
As Secretary of State, Powell fit the George C. Marshall mold. Both generals proved able coalition builders by working across rigid service lines and international barriers to achieve their goals.
In most administrations, the positions of Secretary of Defense and State constitute the two most important cabinet appointments. In Bush’s first cabinet, the moderately conservative Powell at Foggy Bottom balanced the ultra-conservative Donald Rumsfeld across the Potomac. With the wartime situation extant after 9/11, it would seem a "dream team" was in place. Things were not as they seemed.
In Beltway politics, the struggle between State and Defense resembles that between ancient Sparta and Athens. The two institutions are vastly different. Department of State operates on less than 10 percent of DoD’s budget. Additionally, the two cultures are diametrically opposed. They use language differently. Soldiers, demanding clarity, speak bluntly and pointedly. Military decisions presage potentially deadly actions that must be carried out quickly, efficiently, effectively, and decisively. Diplomats, on the other hand, work for compromise and conciliation. Their language is subtle, refined, and often purposefully nuanced.
Donald Rumsfeld sought to be the kind of Pentagon reformer Robert S. McNamara tried to be. His vision for reform revolved around turning the American military into an ultra-high tech power projection force capable of meeting the perceived (if somewhat contrived) "Chinese threat" circa 2025. Stealthy long-range bombers, submarine and surface forces capable of commanding the seas, coupled with space-based assets comprised the essence of this vision. Soldiers, and to a lesser extent, Marines, were an afterthought. Rumsfeld’s vision would not abide fighting insurgencies in the Third World. It was better suited to quick take-downs of second-class military forces like the Iraqi Army. Terrorism and insurgencies are not amenable to the kind of military forces envisioned by Donald Rumsfeld; nor did they fit his into his neo-conservative worldview.
President Bush made two critical strategic mistakes clearly apparent to any strategist, especially one as capable as Colin Powell: First, he failed to properly define the war, dubbing it a "War on Terror" when by Tuesday night September 11, 2001 it was clear al Qaeda, a group supported by Islamist radicals globally, had attacked the United States. Second, Bush intended to take out Saddam Hussein all along. His first inclination after 9/11 was to march on Baghdad.
The Vietnam experience figured heavily into the thinking of officers who achieved flag rank in the 1990s. Months before Operation Iraqi Freedom, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki, a Vietnam combat vet, warned Congress that invading Iraq risked a long war of attrition. Rumsfeld rewarded Shinseki’s candor with early retirement. General Wesley Clark and retired Marine General Anthony Zinni also warned against going into Iraq.
Bush used the weapons of mass destruction argument to obtain support from the Congress and Americans and exaggerated the threat to get what he wanted all along: an end to Saddam’s bloody regime. Having based the war on an erroneous assumption, the Bush administration inherited its legacy: an end to the Republican control of Congress and quite possibly loss of the White House.
Bush hung with Rumsfeld until it became apparent American ground forces faced a possible meltdown due to overuse and misuse. Bush then turned to his constituency at Texas A&M University, home of the George H. W. Bush School, naming Robert Gates, president of Texas A&M, to replace Rumsfeld.
Ultimately, the way politicians and generals mishandled the Vietnam fiasco probably figured far more heavily in Colin Powell’s endorsement equations than anything a raggedy, aging terrorist-turned professor did 40 years ago. Army Vietnam veterans, officers like Colin Powell—Norman Schwarzkopf, Wesley Clark and Eric Shinseki—worked to restore and rebuild the Army prior to Desert Storm. Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama issues from a lifetime of service and insights much more reflective of Army green than any shade of skin color.
Dr. Earl Tilford, a fellow with the Center of Vision & Values at Grove City College, is currently working on a history of the University of Alabama in the 1960s. A former Air Force intelligence officer and former Director of Research for the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University.