Home > What Colin Powell saw but didn’t say
What Colin Powell saw but didn’t sayby Open-Publishing - Sunday 25 April 2004
The rush to war in Iraq echoes Reagan’s Iran-
"History? We won’t know," George Bush tells Bob
Woodward. "We’ll all be dead." But in his book, Plan of
Attack, Woodward’s facts move the past from the shadows,
adding significant new documentation to the story of the
rush to war in Iraq.
The serious constitutional issues and governmental
abuses, the methods and even the continuity of some
personnel that Woodward catalogues evoke memories of the
Reagan Iran-contra scandal. That involved a network of
aides outsourcing US foreign policy to circumvent the
separation of powers - selling missiles to Iran to fund
the Nicaraguan contras. The Iraq war was conceived by
the president and his war cabinet in an apparent effort
to evade constitutional checks and balances. In Iran-
contra, the national security council, CIA and Pentagon
were stealthily exploited from within; in Iraq, they
were abused from the top.
When the Iran-contra scandal was revealed, the Reagan
administration was placed into receivership by the old
Republican establishment. Neoconservatives and
adventurers, criminal or not, were purged, from Elliott
Abrams to Richard Perle. Now they are at the centre of
Woodward reports that in July 2002 Bush ordered the use
of $700m to prepare for the invasion of Iraq, funds that
had not been specifically appropriated by Congress,
which alone holds that constitutional authority. No
adequate explanation has been offered for what, strictly
speaking, might well be an impeachable offence.
Woodward also reports that the battle plan was unfurled
for Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to
the US. On its top, it was stamped "Top Secret: Noforn"
– "No Foreign", not to be seen by anyone but Americans
with the highest security clearance. Following Bush’s
instructions, the vice-president, Cheney, and the
secretary of defence, Rumsfeld, briefed Bandar, who
responded by promising to lower oil prices just before
the election. As we can now see, prices have
skyrocketed, giving oil-producers windfall profits
upfront, and ultimately exaggerating the political
effect of any subsequent drop in prices.
While Bandar was treated as an ex-officio member of the
war cabinet, the secretary of state, Colin Powell, was
kept in the dark. "Mr President," the national security
adviser, Condoleezza Rice, gently suggests, "if you’re
getting to a place that you really think this might
happen, you need to call Colin in and talk to him." So
after Bandar had been told of the battle plan, Bush
decided to inform his secretary of state, a frequent
squash playing partner of the Saudi prince. After all,
he was bound to learn anyway.
Powell had sought to warn Bush on Iraq: if you break it,
you own it. "Time to put your war uniform on," says
Bush. Powell snaps to attention.
Powell is obviously Woodward’s source. Powell believed
the government had been seized by a "Gestapo office" of
neoconservatives directed by Cheney. "It was a separate
little government that was out there," writes Woodward
of Powell’s view. The only precedent is Iran-contra.
Powell was appalled by the mangling of intelligence as
Cheney and the neocons made their case to an eager Bush
and manipulated public opinion. But Powell had put on
his uniform for his commander-in-chief. In the White
House, his capitulation was greeted with a combination
of glee and scorn. Powell would make the case before the
world at the United Nations. Cheney’s chief of staff, I
Lewis "Scooter" Libby, gives him a 60-page brief that
Powell dismisses as filled with "murky" intelligence.
Powell goes to CIA headquarters himself, where he
discovers that "he could no longer trace anything
because it had been ’masticated over in the White House
so that the exhibits didn’t match the words’." He
hastily constructs his own case, which turned out to be
replete with falsehood.
Powell played the good soldier, not taking his qualms
and knowledge to the Congress or the American people.
The most popular man in the country, he never used his
inherent veto power to promote his position. Rather than
fighting his battles in earnest when it counted, before
his army was put in harm’s way, he chose to settle
scores by speaking to Woodward.
Bush tells Woodward that he is "frightened" by detailed
questions. He admires Cheney for not needing to explain
in public. Pointedly, Bush says, unlike Tony Blair, "I
haven’t suffered doubt." Asked if he seeks advice from
his father, the former president, Bush says: "He is the
wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is
a higher Father that I appeal to."
Bush gazes upward for guidance, or turns to Cheney.
Judgment Day may not come before election day. Here on
earth, the Republican establishment that rescued Reagan
after Iran-contra has become superannuated and
powerless. There is no one to intervene.
· Sidney Blumenthal is former senior adviser to
President Clinton and Washington bureau chief of